Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Derrick Brooks: Great player, great human being

CANTON, Ohio

Tonight, he will be recognized as one of the finest football players in the history of the planet. With Derrick Brooks, that is just the start of it.

He won a Super Bowl. And he changed people's lives.

He reached 11 Pro Bowls. And he gave hope to children.

He made, by the Bucs' bookkeeping, 2,198 tackles. And he is just getting started.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame? How about voting Brooks into life's Hall of Fame?

With Brooks, that's the thing to keep in mind. Football is just the way you start the conversation. Brooks has always been about more than the game. His impact has been about more than victories. His footprints have been about more than stopping the other guy.

And thank heaven for it.

In Tampa Bay, it matters. In other places, they seem more ready to accept flaws in their sporting heroes. They understand that making a difference on the field doesn't always mean that an athlete makes a difference off of it.

Here, we want our finest players to be both. We want great players, and we want great people, and we do not easily accept the line between the two. We want impact performers all week long.

You know. Like Brooks.

On his weekend, Brooks stands in a corner in an interview room at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is here to answer questions about greatness, and about immortality. But then you ask him a question. If you could only have been one, which would you rather have been? A great player? Or a great person?

"A great person," Brooks says without hesitation. "Without a doubt. Because that's who I am. That has no shelf life. Only God knows the shelf life. But a football player has a shelf life. I was only able to do that for 14 years.

"That impacts lives. It goes well beyond a football field. The NFL allowed me a stage, but I tell people all the time: You don't have to be a football player to make a difference. All you need is time and a willing heart. If you give your time, you can change the world."

It is odd. There are three players in the Hall of Fame whose careers were primarily spent with Tampa Bay, and two of them were popular enough to be mayors. One was Lee Roy Selmon, whose gentle soul seemed at odds with his violent profession. One is Brooks, who takes this community impact stuff seriously.

The third is, of course, Warren Sapp, whose career was spent whipping up a large dose of nasty. It is as if Sapp was never able to separate the player he was on Sunday with the citizen he was the rest of the time.

But Selmon knew there was a line between the two. And Brooks knows it, too.

"When Lee Roy and I would talk, it would be about how we could make Tampa better," Brooks said. "That, and how we could make the franchise more relevant."

Maybe football would have been enough. Maybe changing the way the rest of the league saw the Bucs would have been enough. Maybe respectability on Sunday would have been enough.

But it wouldn't have been enough for Brooks.

"I would say it started to matter early on," Brooks said. "It was about life. I never had a problem in the role my professional life would play in my personal life. It was going to be two separate roles no matter what I did.

"It was like Tony Dungy said in his first meeting. 'If we're here to win football games and not change the community, we're going to lose.' I pray that message was resonated into me."

For a very long time, they looked the same, the Bucs and Brooks. He was the face. The team might as well have had those hunter's eyes, and that fighter's jaw, and that ready scowl. The rest of the league could not think of one without the other. As a team, the Bucs were slightly undersized, but fast and smart and relentless. Brooks was all of those things, too.

"He's the ultimate Buc," said former teammate Ronde Barber. "A lot of people want to argue that, but it's not even close. He's the guy this franchise modeled itself after. They wanted everyone to be like him. He was the perfect football player."

"He was a dream come true," said John Lynch, another teammate. "He's a wonderful football player and a wonderful human being. I know the Hall of Fame is not about what kind of person you are, but I think it's even better when you have someone who brings both. I think he's a Hall of Fame person, a Hall of Fame friend and a Hall of Fame leader."

He matters. When FSU was looking for a trustee, it didn't matter how many third-down stops Brooks had. When the NFL was looking for an arbiter for players to appeal their punishments, it didn't matter how many interceptions he had. When it was time to take kids to Africa, it didn't matter how many games he won.

What mattered was that Brooks was Brooks, the person. What mattered was that it was important to him to make a difference.

Even now, there is something about Brooks that can make you think, "Yeah, but it's only football." So much to him is more important.

One last question, Derrick. What would you like people to remember about you?

"That I treated people the way I wanted to be treated," he said, "Simple as that."

Simple? Greatness usually is.

 
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