TAMPA — They know him from their old football video games, a powerful player to draft onto their teams.
But former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks stood in front of a group of students Thursday to issue a real-life challenge: Be a role model.
"A commitment must be made," he repeated throughout his speech.
Brooks joined local leaders and law enforcement officials in encouraging teens to take initiative in improving their communities. The panel of speakers kicked off the 27th National Conference on Preventing Crime in the Black Community, which continues today at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
"I want you to hear different noises besides gunshots," Brooks said. "I want you to hear people clapping because you're walking into a room, and you're being honored."
Derrick Brooks Charities works with the state to offer youth and "black-on-black" crime prevention programs.
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor offered this statistic: Even as overall crime declines, 11 out of the city's 27 homicides last year resulted from black-on-black crime, she said.
It's an "epidemic," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. It's "fratricide" — brothers killing brothers.
"I'm tired of going to funerals," he said. "I'm tired of doing gun buy-backs."
The promise of change, the speakers agreed, lies with young people. Officials emphasized the importance of education, leadership, teamwork and giving back.
They also called on communities to support youths.
"If you can reach one child, you can change their lives," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "That could be our next president. Or our next attorney general."
Over two days of workshops led by law enforcement officials, adults and teens will engage in sessions covering trends, empowerment strategies and decision-making.
Middleton High senior Matthew Godwin, 18, said he hears over and over how "most black people won't make it."
But the conference — and Brooks in particular — inspired him: "I want to be the person to prove that you can be anything you want to be," Godwin said.
At the end of Thursday's welcome, Brooks took up each speaker's call to action. He pledged to reach out to children before they encountered the Department of Juvenile Justice. He promised to help second-time offenders emerging from the Department of Corrections.
And Brooks told the mayor he would find a cure to the epidemic.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.