The Frisby Legacy
When the most famous evangelist in Arizona history died last year, his will decreed that his estate be split evenly among his five sons. But there was practically nothing left to split.
Neal Frisby the guy on TV in the '80s, preaching the Gospel "from Phoenix, Arizona, under the great pyramid, Capstone Cathedral" once had assets worth more than $20 million. The Pentecostal preacher's ministry, which he controlled completely, owned 20 acres in one of the priciest parts of town, a 4,000-seat cathedral, and the house his family had lived in for 30 years. All were free and clear.
A few months before dying, however, the ailing evangelist gave them all away.
The land. The cathedral. The house.
He did not give them to his sons, even though two of his sons were living in the house at the time, even though one wanted nothing so much as to inherit the pulpit.
He did not give them to his brother, who was the trustee of his estate and who'd been his loyal lieutenant for decades. Nor did he bequeath them to his congregation or any of its members.
Instead, Neal Frisby handed over his assets to a guy he'd met only a few months before. Robert Brooks was a former NFL wide receiver, of all things. (And, as one family friend hissed, a black wide receiver, at that.)
The family was shocked by the old man's decision, and the story only grew stranger to them as time passed.
Brooks, it turns out, was a guy who'd never even read Frisby's teachings. A guy who proceeded to evict from the cathedral the newsletter operation that had made Frisby's name. A guy who made sure that the family manse, which sat adjacent to the cathedral, was torn down.
During Neal Frisby's life, his word was law. "He wanted things a certain way, and there was no dealing with him if it wasn't that way," recalls Zan Pauley, who attended Frisby's services for more than 30 years and was eventually appointed to his board of directors.
No one challenged Frisby, even as his work habits led to exhaustion, even as he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking relief from chiropractors.
But after Frisby died, people started questioning practically everything about his last decision.
Could "Brother Frisby," as everyone called him, possibly have wanted the world he created to change so dramatically? And how could he possibly have intended that his beloved cathedral the "great pyramid" from those old TV commercials go to a stranger, not to mention the family home?
A year after Frisby's death, his family and friends remain deeply divided.
His sons, who were left in the cold, are convinced that the gift was an act of senility, the irrational act of a 71-year-old man who'd long been wracked with pain and was incapable of safeguarding his interests.
But others, like Pauley, see the bequest as nothing less than Neal Frisby's final leap of faith the perfect signature to a life lived in total service to God.
At first glance, the two positions seem to be in stark contrast.
But much of the evidence files from three court cases, minutes from Frisby's board meetings, property records, and interviews with just about everybody who knew Neal Frisby well points to a more complicated truth.
After all, seemingly crazy behavior and true devotion to God have never been mutually exclusive. Anything but.
Neal Frisby's life was a perfect example of that.
Frisby, as it turns out, was almost always irrational. He was convinced that his success owed everything to his willingness to hear God's voice and obey it. Often, that meant doing things that seemed, well, nuts.
And as Frisby grew older, his obsessive quest for God's voice left him incapable of doing things that anyone else in his position might have prioritized. He failed to nurture his congregation, take care of his health, and even pay attention to his family because he was in pursuit of something bigger and better. Something with eternal significance.
And no one knew that better than Neal Frisby's sons.
Even as his final sacrifice for the Kingdom of God came at their expense. Even as it galls them today.
As a young man, Neal Frisby was a barber, and a boozer. Never had a day of college; didn't even finish high school. Other than a stint in the Naval reserves, he seems to have traveled little beyond Paso Robles, the central California farm town where he'd grown up.
Then, Allen Frisby says, Neal Frisby "heard the call from God."
It wasn't as simple as a call to give up booze. Or to be a better father to his two kids, whom he'd deposited with their grandparents after his wife's death.
Instead, Frisby heard a call to turn over his entire life: to go where God told him to go, and do what God was telling him to do, even when it seemed crazy.
The barber would devote his life to preaching God's word.
In no time, Frisby was leading revival meetings at civic centers and auditoriums across California. He focused on praying for God to heal the sick.
Many people became convinced that his prayers were no less than miraculous. Frisby himself claimed that God used him to heal thousands of people, including, apparently, a girl with Down syndrome.
Then, Frisby believed, God instructed him to up the ante, in a very specific way.
"Jesus told me to get a large Gospel tent and leave California until he said to return," the evangelist would later write.
Frisby traveled with the tent for years: Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida, all the while tormented by hurricanes, floods, even the occasional tornado.
"Some of the staff and people thought maybe that I had disobeyed the Lord in leaving California," Frisby wrote. "The Lord showed me one poor deluded devil [who] told his wife maybe a curse came." But there was no curse, Frisby wrote. Satan, he wrote, was trying to convince him he was on the wrong path.
It tested his faith. But, "when you pass the trial," he later concluded, "then you prosper and are blessed."
In the late '60s, God gave Frisby a new vision: Settle in the desert, build a cathedral.
By this time Frisby had married again, and was well on his way to having four more sons. The oldest of those four, Curtis, recalls that his parents didn't particularly want to be in Phoenix: "There was nothing here but rattlesnakes and rabbits."
But God had spoken, and what were rattlesnakes and rabbits but another test from Satan?
As it turns out, in this particular command, God showed a certain real estate genius. As Curtis Frisby explains, his father felt called to a particular part of town: Shea Boulevard, just west of Tatum Boulevard.
Years later, developers would hound the family, each trying to top the last offer. The acreage now sits only a few hundred feet from one of the priciest retail areas in the city.
But in 1968, it was virtually wilderness. I-10 hadn't been extended through Phoenix yet. State Route 51 wouldn't come for another three decades. Land was cheap, and Frisby was able not only to pay for a sizable plot, but to arrange for construction of the church he would dub the Capstone Auditorium and, later, the Capstone Cathedral.
With its glassy green pyramid top and low-slung walls, the cathedral might have been a spaceship, landed on a desert planet. But it was actually a modern auditorium that sat 4,000 at a time when Neal Frisby's congregation consisted of his wife and kids.
Just as Frisby drew people on the road, though, he was soon drawing them to Phoenix. He advertised revival services on billboards and in the Arizona Republic; response was good enough to soon add regular services both Sunday evening and morning.
"People would stay for weeks," Curtis Frisby recalls. "We rented Greyhound buses to bring them in from the hotels."
Neal Frisby never had the respectability of, say, Billy Graham, and for the most part, his followers were not the well-to-do people who eventually moved to his neighborhood. A large portion of the congregation has always been black; at one point, many were driving in from Los Angeles.
Some people even moved to Phoenix just to be close to Frisby, including a number of pilgrims from Nigeria.
By 1980, Frisby was on TV, with both commercials and broadcast of his sermons. (Later in his career, Frisby was on satellite TV, which won him fans around the world and might explain those Nigerians.) His ministry also published 85 booklets of his sermons and issued a series of recordings on LP. By the 1980s, his associates claimed that the ministry boasted a mailing list of six million "partners."
Frisby worked obsessively. Curtis Frisby says they never once took a family vacation. And Neal never once took his kids fishing or played baseball with them.
"What you have to understand is that my dad believed so fully in what God had told him to do, to deliver this message," says Allen, today an electrician and rancher in Arkansas. "Everything else was secondary to him. Family life was secondary to him."
"I understood why he wasn't the typical dad, per se," Curtis says. "My dad had one purpose, and one thing to do to follow what God called him to do."
It wasn't easy for the kids. It was one thing to adjust to their father's fame; it was another to understand how different their life was from most families'. It was, Curtis says, an "isolated" existence, and even in the family compound, their father often isolated himself from them.
It was hardest for Allen.
Even after Frisby started a second family and settled in Phoenix, he never reclaimed his oldest boy. Allen was raised by his grandparents. (Frisby did take custody of his only daughter.)
He was a boy without a father, even as his father became a famous presence on TV.
"Sure, it made me angry," says Allen, now 53. "He used to tell me, 'It may seem I don't care about you, but I have this very important thing that needs to be done.'"
When Allen was a young man, he moved to Phoenix. And one night during a bar brawl, he broke his neck. The doctors said he'd be a quadriplegic.
It was Neal Frisby who rushed to the hospital to pray over his son. And, Allen believes, it was his father's prayers that led to a miraculous healing: The next day, the doctors were amazed to see the bones no longer broken. Within days, Allen was walking again.
Allen Frisby weeps as he tells the story now. But what seems to touch him the most isn't the miracle although he's clearly amazed, 20 years later but the idea of his reclusive father, rushing to the hospital.
"This was my father, who wouldn't go out in public for anything," he says. "And he came to the hospital and prayed for me. At this point, I was very much a nonbeliever, and I was thinking he was close to Satan because of the way I grew up.
"And there he was. Even my closest family members were amazed that he'd come."
Neal Frisby's meteoric rise would have been impossible in most mainline Protestant denominations, to say nothing of the Roman Catholics.
Those churches have a hierarchy. Pastors are trained; assistants are promoted; theology is studied and debated, each new insight weighed with hundreds of years of tradition.
In those denominations, a guy can't just quit cutting hair and open a church.
But Frisby was Pentecostal, and Pentecostals take their cue from the early church described in the New Testament book of Acts.
Acts describes the time just after Christ's resurrection and return to Heaven. And if the Bible is to be trusted, believing in Jesus at that time was a far more passionate activity than it is for many Christians today. The early believers, the Bible says, spoke in tongues. And made prophecies. And healed the sick.
Those things are treated as relics of a naive time by Christians in many mainline denominations. But Pentecostals believe that God still gives such gifts to His true followers.
And if that's the case, and if God speaks directly to and through some Christians, a top-down structure is worthless. Instead, the church's task is to inspire individuals who can answer the call and use the gifts that God has granted them.
The lack of structure gives great opportunity for charismatic leaders to rise to the top. It's one reason that Pentecostals are often great speakers while mainline churches are sometimes stuck with bloodless academics. (After all, Jesus himself probably wouldn't have stuck around for seminary.)
But freedom always has a dark side, and that's just as true in religion as anything else.
Without solid training, questionable theology can flourish. And without a hierarchy in place, a good man who thinks he's following God can get drunk on power. From Jim Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart, there's a long line of powerful preachers who took terrible falls.
(Obviously, hierarchical churches have their own problems. See: the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandals. But that's another story.)
Neal Frisby, by all accounts, didn't fall prey to any of the usual vices. Never looked at a woman other than his wife; wouldn't tolerate anyone in his inner circle who did. He stayed away from liquor.
And there's never been a suggestion that he was accumulating wealth at the expense of his congregation. Zan Pauley, a member of his board, notes that Frisby's house still had the same carpet, 30 years after he moved in. He didn't eat out for decades.
But Frisby had always been something of a recluse. "He was always strange, as long as I knew him," says the evangelist Leroy Jenkins, who counted himself as one of Frisby's only friends.
As Frisby got older, his life took on an increasingly hermetic quality. He seemed to talk to no one but his family and one or two confidants, ever. Jenkins recalls, during a later visit, taking Frisby around to meet parishioners; even some who'd attended the cathedral for years had never met the guy outside of church.
"He kept his distance," his son Curtis recalls. Even Curtis' wife, the daughter of "partners" who moved to Arizona to be near Neal Frisby, only met the man three or four times.
Frisby's beliefs, which had always been outside the mainstream, only grew more bizarre in isolation.
For years, he was consumed with prophecies about the End Times. He'd work long into the night, recording insights that he believed God had granted him onto a series of "scrolls." (By the end of his life, he'd written 320.) His brother Gerald helped to mail the prophecies in newsletter form to his followers.
In the early '70s, Frisby's team compiled the first 60 scrolls in a book, The Revelation of the Written Scrolls and The Word of God, as given to Neal Vincent Frisby.
Anyone expecting enlightenment today, however, is likely to put the book down, disappointed. It's hopelessly dated, about as helpful as the predictions of most celebrity astrologers.
Instead of offering insights into God's character or living a good life, Frisby was obsessed with making predictions. The world would end in the late '60s, he wrote. Then, in the late '60s, he predicted that "the '70s will tell the complete story of the end." (He also thought flying saucers were evil spirits "traveling in cosmic light," according to the book.)
And while the Bible stresses that no one can know the hour of Christ's second coming, Frisby hinted that he might have found a loophole.
Yes, Frisby wrote, Jesus said that no man could know the hour he'd return. But, "Jesus DID NOT say no man could know the year, month, week, or day," he scolded. Neal Frisby, for one, was betting on 1977.
At one point, Frisby made the mistake of predicting that Robert F. Kennedy would reveal some facts about his brother's assassination Frisby, no surprise, got into conspiracies and the facts "could" lead RFK to the presidency.
When the younger Kennedy was also assassinated, Frisby was defensive. He'd never actually said Kennedy would be president, he noted. Just that he could.
Anyway, he claimed, he'd predicted RFK's death. He just hadn't done it on a scroll.
"My father is a witness to this," Frisby wrote. "I walked in the door of the house and told him privately that both M.L. King and R. Kennedy would be removed from the world power scene shortly, with much bloodshed in the nation.
"You say why didn't I tell everybody," Frisby continued, concluding weakly, "I did to some personally." The passage reads like an embarrassing attempt to save face.
Visiting the Capstone Cathedral for a PBS series on evangelical churches, Ronald Balmert spoke to people in attendance who remembered how the place used to be packed. In the early '70s, they said, people would show up at 4:30 p.m. for services that started at 8.
But by 1987, when Balmert visited, only about 150 people sat in the vast cathedral.
"Frisby is a good example of an evangelical figure who gathers a following because of his charisma and claims of healing power," Balmert wrote in his companion book to the PBS series, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.
"At the same time, Frisby, who elevated himself to the status of prophet, was accountable to no one; because of the increasingly freakish twists of his theology, moreover, erstwhile followers became disenchanted and fell away."
One night, not long after construction had finished, 12-year-old Curtis Frisby accompanied his dad from their house to the cathedral next door to pray.
Curtis idolized his father. And that night, his dad said something that would always stick with him.
"Someday," the evangelist said, "if the call is there, you'll run this. You'll have this place to preach."
It became Curtis' dream. At Chaparral High in Scottsdale, he says, counselors tried to push the idea of college. But he wasn't interested: "I was always going to be in the ministry."
Curtis' brothers, he says, had a harder time with their father's total absorption in spiritual life. But thanks to Curtis' interest in the ministry, he could go where his father went. He led the singing at the cathedral from the time he was 16. In his early 20s, he started warming up the crowd for his dad's sermons.
He remembers his dad bringing him before the congregation, laying his hands on him and praying for God's anointing. "He wants to win souls," the famous evangelist prayed. "Let him minister to the sick."
Curtis is now 46 years old. He's been married; he has a daughter of his own.
He still idolizes his father.
Indeed, though Curtis considers himself a pastor and an evangelist, his faith seems almost a heritage more than the product of a spiritual journey. Asked what he believes, he rattles off the principle of John 3:16: You must be born again.
But asked when he was "born again," Curtis Frisby is lost.
"I felt like I was always saved because I was always around a holy father," he stammers.
Do his beliefs differ from his dad's? "They're exactly the same," he says.
Nearly all of Curtis' sentences begin with "my dad." He's even working on a book about him, The True Story of Evangelist Neal Frisby: Walking With a Miracle Ministry.
"His father," observes Sam Meranto, a friend of the family, "he brags about every day of his life." (Meranto, a weight-loss guru, ordained minister and "guided meditation" entrepreneur, is probably familiar to many Valley residents from his frequent TV appearances.)
In person, Curtis doesn't have his dad's solidness, or his charisma. He's a small man, with a thin, almost emaciated face, and a soft handshake.
But he sounds like his father. There's the same rural twang to his speech, the same rapid stream-of-consciousness. And those who actually saw Curtis preach say, some with a bit of surprise, that he had a gift.
"He got pretty good," Zan Pauley admits. "I don't know if he was copying what he had seen. . . . But he had what his dad had. He had the talent to do it."
What he didn't have, in the end, was his father's blessing. Several years before he died, Neal Frisby banned his son from the pulpit.
There are numerous theories to explain it. Curtis claims they'd had a dispute over the old man's medical care; his father blamed him for taking a lunch break during a physical therapy session that went bad. Leroy Jenkins, the evangelist and one of Neal Frisby's few friends, says the tension stemmed from a business venture that Curtis hoped to start, but that never got off the ground.
A more likely story, however, is the one told by Pauley, who was attending the church at the time and ended up taking over sermons after Curtis was dismissed.
"He got a divorce," Pauley says, simply.
Records show that Curtis' wife, Tamara, filed for divorce in November 2000. And when Neal Frisby filed his ministry's annual report with the Arizona secretary of state four months later, Curtis' name was no longer on the list of officers.
It looks like it's been painted over with Wite-Out.
By the next year, Curtis was out of the pulpit.
"Curtis wasn't living the way his dad thought he was supposed to which is the way he was supposed to be living," Pauley says. "People saw that. His dad got letters. And we lost a lot of people over it."
"Here he was, this holy roller, Pentecostal, and his son gets a divorce, and it started all sorts of speculation and rumors," Allen Frisby confirms. "Pentecostals don't even believe in divorce." (Curtis emphatically disagrees with the two men's claims, saying his father never spoke to him about the divorce, and anyway, it was his wife who filed.)
Trying to get something started on his own, Curtis filed papers to start CVF Ministries. But while he worked to promote Christian concerts, and attempted to hold crusades of his own, the venture stalled.
Neal Frisby's experience notwithstanding, it's hard to build a ministry from nothing. But a much bigger complication may have been that Curtis was needed at home.
Neal's wife, Margaret, had died in 1999, the year before Curtis' divorce. Neal, who hadn't been healthy for years, only grew worse in her absence.
Curtis dreamt of the pulpit, but he submitted to the less appealing task in front of him.
Neal was not easy to take care of. He'd always been insistent on his way of doing things, and the illness seemed to take his air of authority and turned it to downright orneriness. Zan Pauley recalls him throwing Curtis out of the house, then changing his mind, then throwing him out again.
Curtis just took it. His devotion to his father's needs was total.
"He wouldn't even pick up a cup for himself," Curtis explains wearily. "He could do it he just wouldn't. So I did. I tried to do what the Bible said, basically. 'Honor your father and mother.' I just took it to the extreme, to the point where I couldn't even go to the bathroom. Because I couldn't get away."
Some people who saw father and son together were shocked at the way the old man accepted his son's lifeblood, even while refusing to give him another chance at the pulpit, or even treat him with respect.
"I saw Curtis wipe his own father from the bathroom, and no one else would do that day to day," says Jenkins. "No one. I told Neal, 'This is your son and he cares about you. He'd have to, to put up with what you're doing to him.'
"But Neal was stubborn."
By the time Neal Frisby expelled his son from the ministry, he hadn't been well for more than a decade. Indeed, one of the great ironies of Frisby's life is that a man famed for his gift of healing a man who spent decades telling others to believe that Jesus had the power to heal them was himself wracked by pain for more than a decade.
Frisby's troubles, his associates say, started in the early '90s and never fully left him. And while he continued to labor over his scrolls until the final years, the pain kept him from the pulpit long before that.
"He wouldn't be there for a year, then he'd come back and preach every Sunday for six weeks," Curtis recalls. "Then he'd disappear again for months. That's the way it went until the end of his life."
In court papers, Frisby's lawyer called the illness an "undifferentiated somatoform disorder," which basically meant a number of physical complaints that didn't add up to any known medical condition.
And while his lawyer described the condition as a "mental" disorder, the pain certainly felt real. Frisby would visit his chiropractor two, three, four times a day.
"I'd go a certain time, come back a certain time, come back a certain time, go a certain time, come back a certain time," Frisby himself explained in a rambling deposition in 2003. "That's the truth, so help me God."
The deposition came as part of a lawsuit that the Frisbys filed against the chiropractor, Craig Seitz, in 2002. According to that suit, the evangelist paid Seitz's practice a staggering $800,000 over an eight-year period.
The Frisbys argued that Neal was not in his right mind and that Seitz should have refused to treat him. (The suit was settled out of court in 2004; terms were not disclosed.)
The chiropractor had apparently been worried for years about a suit, so he secretly recorded his conversations with Frisby's wife, his son Curtis, and with Frisby himself. The transcripts were entered into the court record.
While there are gaps in the text, the transcripts do Frisby no favors. They seem to offer clear evidence that the famous preacher was slipping, badly.
At various points, Frisby complains that his vertebrae are out of joint, that his knee hurts, that his feet need to be popped into place, that his tailbone hurts, and finally, that he can't breathe. Out of the blue, he discusses going back to California, the IRS, and the dentist. Perhaps remembering his former life as a barber, Frisby twice discusses his need for a haircut.
None of it makes much sense.
In one transcript, Dr. Seitz talks to Frisby's wife, Margaret.
"I know he hasn't been sleeping," Seitz tells her. "He needs to get his rest, too."
"He needs it," Margaret agrees.
"You okay, sweetheart?" Seitz asks. "Margaret, can I help you?"
Margaret says that she's just worried.
"Not moving his body, staying in bed all day, those things have slowly but surely taken away his strength," the chiropractor explains. "He needs to get into life, not into bed." (Seitz declined to comment.)
But no one knew how to motivate him. Frisby lost so much weight, he became almost skeletal. His reclusion appears to have verged on agoraphobia.
"It got where he didn't leave the house in two years," says Pauley.
By the fall of 2003, his sons and supporters agree, it was clear that the 69-year-old evangelist wasn't going to get well. And with Curtis banned from the pulpit and Neal unwilling to turn over operations to anyone else, the ministry was falling apart.
So the family summoned Leroy Jenkins to Phoenix.
The theatrical Jenkins Pauley calls him "a cross between Engelbert Humperdinck and Elvis Presley" was an Ohio-based evangelist famous enough to have two movies made about his life. He'd been good friends with the aging Mae West, and Faye Dunaway played West in one of the films; Jenkins' Web site prominently displays the photo of himself with Dunaway.
A traveling crusader, Jenkins had hosted meetings at Capstone a few years before, during one of Neal's bad periods. For decades, Jenkins says, he and Neal stayed in touch by phone.
So when Jenkins got a series of urgent phone calls saying that Neal was dying, he agreed to move his ministry to Phoenix. In September 2003, Neal's board of directors officially made Jenkins the ministry's executive vice president. According to the written agreement they drew up, Jenkins would have total control.
That lasted all of three months.
In January 2004, just before Jenkins' next series of crusade meetings was scheduled to begin, the board terminated his role. When Jenkins showed up for the evening meeting, he was barred from entering the cathedral.
The matter ended up in a bitter lawsuit, which Jenkins filed in July 2004. The Frisbys filed a counterclaim soon after.
Coming from one of Frisby's few friends, the suit is devastating: It portrays an inner circle that's fallen apart, thanks to squabbling and Neal's neglect. The suit even claims that staffers were helping themselves to cash from the offering plate.
And, Jenkins claims, one of Neal's sons, Ferrell, was on the payroll but not doing any work. (Ferrell Frisby does not have a listed phone number or address. Curtis says he hadn't talked to him in months and was unable to provide a phone number. Chris Frisby, the only other sibling surviving today, also does not have a listed phone number or address.)
"There was something wrong with his foot," Jenkins recalls. "I told them, 'He can stuff envelopes. There's nothing wrong with his hands.' But he wouldn't do it."
In his suit, Jenkins also claimed that someone had accessed pornography on church computers.
The Frisbys denied the charges vehemently, and in their counterclaim, they fired back that Jenkins had promised not to change the appearance of the church, yet had ordered new landscaping. They also claimed that Jenkins had tried to persuade Neal to sign away his property and that Jenkins planned to sell part off to a developer.
Neal, somehow, managed to stay outside the fray. Jenkins says he has no ill will toward his friend. He blames Neal's brother Gerald for his eviction.
"He saw that place blossoming, that I brought people back to the church," Jenkins says. "It ate him up."
Curtis Frisby agrees that the two men clashed, but he insists that the decision to oust Jenkins was strictly his father's.
"He just got tired of the arguing," he says. "He told me that Leroy had to go."
The old man had seemed to rally when Jenkins was around. For everyone in the Frisby house, Neal's word had always been law. But Jenkins pushed back.
Jenkins ordered Neal to eat "and no more of this baby food," he'd say in disgust, since Neal at the time was mostly subsisting on purées, spoon-fed by Curtis. When Neal would beg for his pain pills, Jenkins would substitute half a Tylenol. For the first time in 30 years, Neal Frisby even went to a restaurant.
But once Jenkins left, Neal fell back into his old habits. His family, as usual, didn't have the strength to fight him. Curtis says that the weight his father gained began to fall away, rapidly.
Once again, the family began to prepare for Neal Frisby to die.
Around the time that Curtis Frisby got his divorce, around the time that Neal Frisby's health problems were beginning to overwhelm his family, a wide receiver named Robert Brooks was retiring from the NFL.
Brooks was 29 years old, and he was at that odd place common to pro athletes: He hadn't even reached the prime of his life, and he was already too old for the job he'd spent his life training to do.
But Brooks, a slender man with soap-opera-ready looks, had a plan for his second act. He'd come to know Christ as a Green Bay Packer under the tutelage of the late, great Reggie White, and even before injuries cut short his football career, he felt God's call in a vision no less specific than the one that brought Neal Frisby to Arizona in 1968.
It would generate enough income to pay for itself.
And someone would give him a building to use as its headquarters.
He'd been living in Arizona for years, after falling in love with the place during a training visit in college. So in 2002, three years after his retirement and an aborted attempt to return to the NFL, Brooks filed paperwork with the Arizona secretary of state to begin "Men of God Ministries."
And then he began casting around for a building.
Sam Meranto, the self-help/weight-loss guru, got to know Brooks during this time. Brooks even recorded a pair of meditations for Meranto, focusing on "bringing the power of God into your life" and "health and confidence through God."
But Meranto says he was shocked and a bit dismayed when Brooks asked if he had a building he'd like to donate.
Still, it wasn't long after that Meranto introduced Brooks to his old friend Curtis Frisby. "His family owns the biggest church in Phoenix," Meranto told Brooks.
And then Curtis Frisby introduced Brooks to his father.
The old man was in the hospital.
"My first impression," Brooks recalls, "is that this is a man who God had told that he was about to depart. And there were some things he intended to make right before he did."
But what happened next shocked just about everybody.
"The first thing I knew, Robert Brooks owned the church," Meranto says, adding that Brooks also lured away his "top salesman" now an assistant pastor at the cathedral.
Indeed, records show that within two months, Neal Frisby signed off on paperwork giving the entire acreage on Shea Boulevard house, cathedral, and a two-acre parcel that could be split off for retail to Brooks.
Five months after that, Neal Frisby died.
It's hard to sort out exactly what happened in the final months of Neal Frisby's life, simply because everyone's story contradicts the others.
Robert Brooks, for instance, says he distinctly remembers driving by the Capstone Cathedral long before he'd ever heard of Neal Frisby. He had visions, he says, of himself standing in the pulpit, preaching.
But Sam Meranto, who introduced Brooks to the Frisbys, is insistent that Brooks had no idea what the Capstone Cathedral was until he got involved.
And while Curtis Frisby insists that his father only met Brooks a few times, Brooks claims they met repeatedly, including holding weekly meetings during the "transition" period after Neal signed the papers.
There are also endless theories on those papers. Leroy Jenkins, who was in litigation with the Frisbys at the time and probably not in a position to know, says Brooks took a blank sheet, asked Neal to sign, and then typed a deed around it.
But that conveniently disregards the fact that all the trustees for Frisby's ministry signed off on the deal, too.
Indeed, Frisby had a lawyer to safeguard his interests. He also had his board complete with his brother Gerald, who managed to drive away the formidable Leroy Jenkins without too much trouble. It's hard to think he couldn't handle Brooks if he wanted to.
(While declining an interview, Gerald says he's supporting Brooks. He blames Curtis Frisby for trying to stir up publicity for himself and the book he's writing about Neal, a project Gerald openly dismisses. "He's writing this book about Neal Frisby, but he doesn't have the authorized version.")
Even Curtis Frisby, when pressed, admits that his father probably did want to give Brooks the property at one point. But, Curtis insists, Neal changed his mind soon after.
"I made a mistake," Curtis claims his father said. "I don't know how I signed it away, but I made a mistake."
Curtis also believes that Brooks didn't receive the gift graciously. After all, he made Gerald's scroll-mailing operation leave and he had the house torn down.
Brooks did give each brother a portion from the sale of two acres sold to development. But, as Curtis points out, Brooks was a former NFL player with a $974,000 house in north Phoenix. He didn't have to take a cut for himself, even though he was certainly within his rights to do so.
More than $500,000 from the sale also went to settle Leroy Jenkins' claim against the ministry, as Jenkins confirms. And both Jenkins and Curtis claim that part of Jenkins' settlement required Brooks to cut Neal's sons a check from the land sale.
"I'm not bitter at Robert," Curtis insists. "I just think he could have handled it better."
Indeed, the Frisby boys were in bad shape at the time of their father's death. Both of Curtis' kidneys failed just days before his father died; he's since had a transplant, but he subsists on a disability check from the government and the kindness of friends as he tries to get his ministry started. (To that end, he's hosting a crusade at the Last Day Revival Center in west Phoenix in October.)
One month after their father's death, Curtis' brother Joel was killed in a freak moped accident. Curtis admits that Robert Brooks cut a check for $4,000 to help with funeral costs, but he says it in the context of lamenting that Brooks didn't cover the whole thing.
But blaming Brooks for accepting the gift of the cathedral is perhaps easier than blaming his beloved father for giving it. And Zan Pauley, for one, is convinced that Brooks has been doing exactly what Neal Frisby wanted.
The house, for example, was something the evangelist insisted should be torn down. "He didn't want it to become a shrine," Pauley says. "That was Neal's orders."
Indeed, of all the stories told about Neal Frisby's final days, it's one from a man who'd practically been a stranger that rings most true.
In his very first meeting with Frisby, Brooks says, the evangelist talked about handing over his cathedral.
Frisby said that God gave him a dream the night before they met.
"In his dream, he was there in the pulpit, and he told everyone to follow Robert Brooks," Brooks says. "God was telling him to turn over everything."
The Capstone Cathedral today has been stripped of all signs of its former owner. Gone is the sign with Neal Frisby's name out front, gone the pulpit so familiar from late-night TV, gone the interior rainbow color scheme that Neal Frisby had touted as so symbolic.
Frisby's ministry, too, is gone from the premises. Miracle Life Ministries LLC, now run by Neal's brother Gerald, has moved to an office off-site.
There they still answer the phones "Miracle Life Neal Frisby's ministry." They're still working on mailings and are planning to reprint a number of Frisby's sermon booklets. But the Capstone Cathedral is now the Capstone Center, and inside is Robert Brooks' church. Trendsetters Church, he calls it.
About 125 people attended one recent July service. The church hasn't grown since Brooks took over, but it doesn't appear to have shrunk, either. At the July service, the congregation seems cheerful and the worship team talented. If the sermon is a little long, well, Brooks has time to learn brevity.
Brooks says he's been trying to go slow with changes. He knew it would be a rough transition; he didn't want to put up a sign of his own until the congregation had time to adjust.
Eventually, he wants to get on TV, or a podcast. (That's the worldwide part of his vision.) But these days, the Capstone Center doesn't even have a listed phone number. And if you do manage to get through, the church answering machine lacks the typical message stating service times and visitor information and it isn't exactly easy to get a call back.
Neal Frisby's been dead for a year. But Brooks says his congregation is only beginning to move on.
"It was hard for people," he says. "From what I understand about his ministry, a lot of people didn't even believe Neal Frisby was capable of dying."
And that's one reason that changes are necessary.
"The man had a very unique ministry," Brooks says. "I think he was misunderstood, even by his own parishioners. Because all the focus was on Neal and I think that was far from what Neal wanted."
For his sermon in July, Brooks focuses on the story of the Good Samaritan. He tells the congregation how a poor man was lying in the streets, beaten and robbed, but the religious leaders passed by without stopping to help. They were too consumed, Brooks explains, with being righteous.
The Bible, he says, calls for Christians to go out and help people. Not spend their time locked away, studying the scriptures.
It's impossible not to think of Neal Frisby working feverishly over his scrolls long into the night, unwilling to stop long enough to pay attention to his children.
Even in his sermon, Robert Brooks makes a point of talking about his priorities: God first, but family is second.
His ministry, Brooks stresses, is last.
In his final days, Pauley says, Neal seemed to finally realize the toll that his overwork had taken.
"Take a look at me," he once told Pauley sorrowfully. "This is not what you want to do to yourself."
And in those final years of sickness and pain, the once-famous televangelist sat with his loyal follower and spoke of his biggest regret.
"He regretted," Pauley says, "that he hadn't spent more time with his family."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Stephen Colbert's Audience Boos U.S. Senator John McCain
Tue., Oct. 13, 7:00pm
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
- ACLU Vows to Appeal SB 1070 Ruling That Allows Cops to Investigate Suspects'...
- Loop 101 Shooting Incident Not Related to I-10 Shootings, DPS Says