Even in a community that worships athletes, Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn are Tampa Bay heroes.
Around here, Brooks and Dunn, cut Wednesday by the Buccaneers, are known for their football feats but, perhaps even more so for educating children, buying houses for single mothers and being great men of character.
"It's heartbreaking," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "Terrible."
Both men have won the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for their charitable work and were part of a winning nucleus of respected team leaders led by former coach Tony Dungy that also included Mike Alstott, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.
"They were the perfect role models," NAACP Hillsborough chapter president Curtis Stokes said, "guys that were not only jocks, if you will, but guys who used football for a greater cause, guys who conducted themselves well, guys who made themselves the fabric of the community."
Brooks, 35, a Florida State University graduate who spent 14 years with the Bucs, helps counsel children for college, sends them to NFL games, funds youth leagues and started the Brooks-Debartalo Collegiate charter high school. He heads Derrick Brooks Charities and has been involved with other nonprofits.
When Brooks heard that a boy at the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay had never flown and marveled at the chartered flights Brooks took to road games, the football player flew the boy and several others to West Palm Beach.
When another child thought the King Center was a mall, Brooks took him to Atlanta to see the museum devoted to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He also has taken children on trips to Africa, the Juilliard School in New York, Loyola University in Chicago and FSU.
"I can't believe it. I'm still kind of speechless," said Ricky Gallon, director of community relations for the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay. "He's been such a pillar in the community."
Dunn, 34, also graduated from FSU and played six of his 12 years with Tampa Bay. He has helped 84 single parents and their 224 family members become first-time homeowners by giving them down payments and furnishings.
Yolanda Blount and her four children slept on her sister's floor and in a mold-infested apartment before Dunn helped her.
"I hope somebody will pick him up because I will be switching to that team," said Blount, who lives in St. Petersburg. "Wherever he plays that's who I will go with."
Barbara Inman, Pinellas Habitat for Humanity executive director, said Dunn's inspirational story — the son of a murdered police officer who was also a single mother — gives kids hope.
"He has worked so hard to get where he is," Inman said. "It's one of those stories where you say, 'I may not have it so good but I can do something' and it just proved that to these kids."
The past 10 years Inman has played fantasy football and she has drafted Dunn every year — solely because of his charitable acts.
"I'm crying," she said. "I love him. I have a signed jersey on my wall here with a picture of him signing it while I'm wearing it."
Stokes, who also serves as a vice president of Fifth Third Bank, said any company with employees such as Brooks and Dunn would retain them just for the goodwill they earn the company in the community.
That's why he doesn't understand why the pair was released.
"I think the Bucs made a huge mistake," he said. You keep guys like that around."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]