TAMPA — The leader of the Bucs defense wears cargo shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops to his first news conference of the season. His face is pink with sunburn from the first training camp practice. A red welt connecting his eyebrows turns darker by the minute.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud still is trying to cool down by taking swigs from a Gatorade bottle. It was after noon before the first practice ended, two hours later than what the Bucs grew accustomed to over the past seven years in Orlando.
Trainer Todd Toriscelli issued a heat warning Saturday morning that Ruud ignored.
"(Derrick) Brooks used to wear rubber suits under his pads," Ruud said. "Todd said, 'I don't recommend anyone wearing long sleeves.' But I said, 'No, my Don taught me well. I've got to suffer in this heat.' I still think about Derrick."
Brooks, referred to by teammates as the "Godfather" after 14 seasons in Tampa Bay, was released in February. But he sent text messages to several players, including Ruud, on Saturday.
"He just said, 'Go to work. Control what you can. Just let your play do all your talking for you,' " Ruud said.
And just like that, in the technological era, the baton was passed.
Ruud, 26, is now the undisputed leader of the defense.
Based on his play — Ruud led the Bucs in tackles the past two seasons — some argue he has been.
"He is the guy. Let's not kid ourselves," cornerback Ronde Barber said.
"He's in a situation where they didn't ask him — because of who was here — to be that guy. He just kind of gradually started to assume that role last year, and it's going to fall heavy on his shoulders this year. He's a great guy, and he can handle it."
How Ruud tried to handle his contract situation is another matter. With one year remaining on a contract that will pay him $1.6 million this season, Ruud boycotted offseason workouts in hopes of luring the Bucs to the negotiating table.
Complicating matters is Ruud might need two more seasons to become a free agent if the NFL and players' union don't reach a new collective bargaining agreement, thereby playing the 2010 season without a salary cap.
The Bucs did not blink, and Ruud has tried to put the episode behind him.
"It was a little weird at times, and my mind was on it a lot," Ruud said.
"My mind was not thinking about football."
The decision to stay away has Ruud playing catchup in what he calls the "zombie" world of training camp. He still is learning how to make the calls in the scheme of new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
"In Jim's defense, if I don't make a lot of tackles, I'm probably doing something wrong," Ruud said.
What Ruud might need to gain more recognition in is splash plays.
He has not scored a touchdown in the four seasons since being a second-round pick out of Nebraska.
"I think as a linebacker, especially when you're not playing for the Cowboys or the Packers, who are on national TV every week, I think you have to find a way to get on SportsCenter," Ruud said. "My dad was joking with me. He said, 'You're going to have to score four touchdowns, I think, if you want to get across the pond (to the Pro Bowl).
"I'm not a guy who loves attention. But at the same time, I like the responsibility of (being the leader). It works both ways. You're going to take a little heat, too, but that comes with the territory. I'm excited about it. I think everybody wants to be put in a bigger spotlight, I guess."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com