TAMPA — The students at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School gathered for a special program sponsored by the College Football Playoff Foundation last week, but they never expected the surprise that awaited the school.
The "College Banner Program," involved inspiring the students to aspire for college. That might seem elementary, but it could be a necessary starting point for some who have no college tradition in their family.
During the assembly on Nov. 18, dozens of college banners were displayed on the walls. As Derrick Brooks, the school's co-founder, hung the banner from Florida State University, his beloved alma mater, on the gymnasium wall, the Brooks DeBartolo students were told to chant, "55! 55! 55!''
Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins asked Brooks if he understood the significance of the "55'' chant.
"It was my (football uniform) number,'' Brooks said.
True enough, Higgins acknowledged, but there was more. Higgins said the CFP foundation and the Sports Commission were committed to philanthropy and they went through the Brooks DeBartolo school "wish list.''
The technology needs — laptops, monitors, iPads — amounted to approximately $55,000.
"We're going to cover all of that,'' Higgins said. "The College Football Foundation and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission are going to take care of all of those needs.''
Brooks did a double-take, then his jaw dropped.
He bear-hugged Higgins.
Administrators and teachers wept openly as hundreds of students roared their approval.
Brooks DeBartolo basketball player Lavel Dumont (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), all smiles, bolted from the bleachers and ran to Higgins (5-9, 145), triumphantly lifting him in the air.
"That was great,'' Higgins said. "It was awesome to see that much happiness and emotion. That's what it's all about and makes everything worth it.''
The lasting impression crafted by the ceremony represents exactly what the foundation wants to do in Tampa Bay as it gears towards the College Football Championship, set for Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 9.
The CFP Foundation's "Extra Yard for Teachers'' initiative plans a number of programs designed to highlight and reward teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Britton Banowsky, executive director of the CFP Foundation, said the support of education makes for a natural philanthropic mission.
"College football is putting the emphasis on raising up teachers and getting them recognized for the great work they do,'' Banowsky said. "We're trying to promote a college-going culture in the country and we're also trying to promote the teachers. At the end of the day, the teacher is the key ingredient in quality education.''
The foundation's latest gift to Brooks DeBartolo left teachers, students and parents overwhelmed, including Sheila Shipman, whose two daughters attend Brooks DeBartolo.
"I'm a parent, I volunteer here all the time and I love this school,'' Shipman said. "This means more than words can express. As involved parents, we see the needs and the benefits. You realize how tough it is for any school to get these types of donations. When the needs are met, it increases their learning. You see the growth in the children. It's wonderful.''
Brooks said his football accomplishments — 11 Pro Bowl appearances, winning Super Bowl XXXVII and his 2014 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — can't compare to the feeling he experiences when driving on Interstate 275 and looking over at the high school he helped to establish.
"Just knowing all those students are there getting a quality education, that means so much,'' Brooks said. "We want them all to visualize themselves in a collegiate atmosphere. Seeing is believing. That's what the banners represent to me.
"Having this College Football Playoff in our community carries such an impact, and it extends well beyond the game. The things that are being done to help teachers, students and education as a whole means so much to the entire Tampa Bay area.''
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]