CANTON, Ohio — His is a legacy built largely without words. For most of his days, talking was the least impressive thing Derrick Brooks did.
He reached immortality quietly, you might say. There were plenty of other Bucs to take care of the talking, other Bucs who controlled the volume. Brooks? For the most part, he remained quiet, humble. Only his accomplishments shouted.
But on a cool, Canton evening, as he stood behind a lectern with all of professional football looking on, all Brooks had were words. And so a lifetime's worth of them spilled out of him, smooth and strong and unhurried. This was Brooks' moment, the moment his legacy was embraced by everyone who has come into contact with him, and he was determined not to leave anyone out.
So Brooks talked. And he talked. And he talked.
And the longer he talked, the more golden his words sounded.
"We just unveiled that bust," Brooks said. "It (occurred) to me that this is what it's all about. There is no higher place to go in this game."
He took the crowd from pee-wee football in Pensacola to the fields of Florida State to the turnaround of the Tampa Bay Bucs. He remembered his parents and his family and his high school principals. He talked about a "beautiful journey" with Warren Sapp and Ronde Barber breaking his records and John Lynch, who he predicted will be giving his own induction speech next year.
He gave credit to Sam Wyche and Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. He remembered Lee Roy Selmon and Bobby Bowden and Monte Kiffin. He remembered so many teammates, and so many moments, and so many lessons that were handed from his parents. He talked about training with Mike Alstott before dawn.
It was vintage Brooks, remembering everyone, taking note of every detail. This is how meticulous he was as a player. This is how serious he took the task at hand.
"This game has taught me to believe in relationships and trust in everyone that I just talked about," Brooks said. "My relationship with you guys is genuine. I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of it."
Derrick Brooks, Hall of Famer.
It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?
Brooks entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, and the list of names that awaited him are staggering. Jim Brown. Jerry Rice. Lawrence Taylor. Ronnie Lott. Dick Butkus. All the others. It was the kind of night to leave the stars in an ex-player's eyes, a night that will leave a man humble. Not quite speechless, but humble.
That said, yeah, Brooks belongs.
With any of them.
Brooks was a terrific linebacker. He could run as well as any linebacker has ever run. He could tackle the way any of them ever tackled. He was a cerebral player, one who kept careful notes every day of his career. He was instinctive. He was physical. He was durable.
But you know the best thing you could say about Brooks?
It was precisely at the moment the Bucs drafted him that the franchise got smart.
For almost two decades before, and for much of the time since Brooks retired, this has been a thick-headed franchise, one that cannot stay out of its own way. It was the franchise that couldn't hold on to Doug Williams, the franchise that couldn't sign Bo Jackson, the franchise that hired Leeman Bennett and Ray Perkins and Richard Williamson, the franchise that drafted Booker Reese and Keith McCants and Charles McRae. As a franchise, this organization spent a lot of time unable to figure out a ballpoint pen.
Then came Brooks, and suddenly, the Bucs had it all figured out. With Brooks, everyone sounded like Einstein.
In the crowd on Saturday night, 12 rows deep, were Rich McKay and Tim Ruskell, the former Bucs general manager and personnel director. Back in 1995, those two sat on the back porch of One Buc Place, drinking beer and smoking cigars in the celebration of the moment. Earlier that day, they had just drafted Sapp and Brooks, and in the glow of the moment, it hit each of them. They had just turned a franchise around.
Eureka, they had.
"It takes you back," Ruskell said. "Derrick kept going over the names, and you remembered how special that group was, from the players to the coaches. How intense they were. How much they won when we really didn't have an offense."
For years, that defense slung the offense over its shoulder and succeeded anyway. Maybe that's why Brooks took special care to recognize former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica.
"There were a lot of games we won 9-3, 6-2, 12-9, and Martin kicked a 52-yarder," Brooks said.
Oh, that wasn't the only thing that Brooks had to overcome in his career. There was 16 years of dysfunction by the franchise. There was an offensive-minded head coach in Wyche, and a position coach (Maxie Baughan) who didn't believe in him. There was a search for a new coach that started with Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier before settling on Dungy. Yeah, there was a chance that this franchise was going to swallow him up, too.
But Brooks — and, yes, Sapp — would not allow it. Much of greatness, after all, is finding a way to achieve it.
He was the best of them, Brooks. Even Sapp has always admitted it. Even Barber and Lynch acknowledge what Brooks meant to that defense. It was Brooks' will, his determination, his fire that made that defense into a force. It was Brooks' leadership that would not allow the failure to continue.
"Someone taught me that most people will forget what you say," Brooks said. "Some will forget what you do. But no one will ever forget how you made them feel."
Tampa Bay fans know all about that. For 14 seasons, no one made them feel better than Brooks. No one thrilled them so much on Sunday afternoons. No one made them more appreciative the rest of the week.
This night was a perfect night to remember, to feel pride of the player Brooks was, and the man he became, and an era that was highlighted by a championship.
In the end, Brooks smiled one last time, a wide, bright smile, and waved.
That smile will last forever.
That legacy, too.