NEW YORK — In that golden moment when his name was called, in that snapshot when Derrick Brooks entered immortality, he was suddenly young again.
There on the stage of the Radio City Music Hall, Brooks might as well have been back on the field of Raymond James Stadium, daring another opponent to try to get to the other side of him. Instead of a suit, he might as well have been wearing his old number 55, and he might have been staring down Marshall Faulk, or chasing down Michael Vick, just like in the old days.
After all, a man builds a mansion one brick at a time, and as Brooks stood there on the stage, all the old memories of him came flooding back to the rest of us. All of the sweat, all of the blood, all of the crunching hits. Just like that, the memories were fresh again.
On that stage, Brooks was no longer just shy of his 40th birthday. There in the bright lights, Brooks was once again a young man, fleet and hard, inviting his teammates to warm themselves on his inner fire.
In some ways, Brooks will always be that player now. He was voted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, the second straight first ballot inductee from the Bucs (after his buddy Warren Sapp).
Forever, Brooks will be remembered as one of the finest linebackers ever to play the game. He was better against the run than Derrick Thomas, better against the pass than Rickey Jackson. He was better longer than Ted Hendricks. He had less talent around him than Jack Ham. Oh, you could argue the case of the troubled Lawrence Taylor over him — Taylor won Defensive Player of the Year three times — but you can argue for Brooks over anyone else who has ever played.
Rattle the names of the other outside linebackers in the Hall of Fame to Brooks, and his smile widens, and he slowly shakes his head. Yes, he is in fine company.
"You're talking about a guy who wanted to be an insurance man," Brooks said, grinning. "That's all I wanted to be. Now I'm in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Amazing. I thought about leading up to the draft, I didn't want to work out as a strong safety. I wanted to prove I could play the linebacker position. I wasn't backing away from it. I'm glad God put that resiliency in me.
"And now, I'm one of the greatest linebackers to play the game."
He was the steady one, the quiet one, the player who did not shout his own name or thump his own chest. It was Sapp, and his outsized personality, that drew most of the attention around the Bucs in those days. There was also John Lynch and Ronde Barber and Simeon Rice.
But eventually, the world could not help but notice Brooks, a red blur as he flashed from sideline to sideline, blunting the finest weapons the NFL had to offer, Faulk and Vick and Barry Sanders and Rich Gannon and Donovan McNabb and the rest of them.
Brooks acknowledged that he reflected on those days during the long wait on Saturday. He nibbled at a sandwich. He did an autograph session. He lay around his hotel room.
Oh, and he had his nails done.
That's right, one of the toughest linebackers in the history of the game had his nails done.
This was Brooks' day. Throughout his career, Brooks filled the most important days with thoughts of how he could help his teammates. But not Saturday. Saturday was about No. 55. Brooks could not help Tony Dungy, his old coach, get in. He could not help John Lynch, his old teammate. He could not help Eddie DeBartolo, his good friend from Tampa.
"This process causes you to be a little selfish," Brooks said. "That's everything against my personality. As my wife (Carol) said, 'Let your guard down for five minutes. Enjoy it. Just take a sigh of relief, thank God, and understand it's meant … to be, to be in the Hall of Fame.' "
As humble as he is, it should be said that Brooks had a fierce pride about the way he did his job. He believed that if his inner fire burned brightly enough, then everyone would notice it. And they did.
How could you help it? There was the day in 1996 against Minnesota when Brooks had 23 tackles. There was the day in '98 when he had 20 against Carolina. There was his 97-yard interception return against Baltimore. There were nine straight weeks in 2005 when Brooks had double-digit solo tackles.
There were his duels against Faulk, when those two represented the league's finest defense against the league's finest offense. There was the game in 2002, when Michael Vick was off to his best season, that Brooks was all over him, holding him to nine yards rushing and 125 yards passing.
For Brooks, there were so many of those days, days that were all about details and assignments and making the players around him a little bit better. His career was one tackle at a time. Together, they all added up to this.
Brooks and Sapp. Sapp and Brooks.
Together, they were the Hulk and Thor. They came into the league together, and they made the Bucs better together. Then there is this: Sapp was the last guy inducted last year. Brooks will be the first guy this year. In other words, they went in right next to each other.
It's odd. There was a time, when both were entering their second seasons, that new coach Dungy brought them to his office. He told Brooks that Brooks was going to be Ham. He told Sapp that he was going to be Joe Greene. Amazingly, it turned out that way.
"After that meeting, I was probably more intimidated than motivated," Brooks said, cackling.
He smiled. He hugged. He told the old stories.
For Brooks, it was a good day. A golden day.
"I'm going to do the best I can to make this new class the best class in the history of the Hall of Fame," Brooks said. "I'm going to embrace it with the greatest humility but the greatest work ethic."
Just asking, but does anyone want to bet against him?