Derrick Brooks was only a sophomore when Jimmie Nichols first realized how special Brooks could be.
The longtime Panhandle high school football coach had seen that kind of talent, charisma and determination only once before, when Emmitt Smith began his run toward the Hall of Fame. Two years later, Nichols knew he had another once-in-a-lifetime player.
"After being around Emmitt, you kind of get the feeling that this guy's special. There's something special here, and he's going to do special things," Nichols said. "And he did. Over and over and over and over."
Starting here, inside the gray brick walls of Booker T. Washington High School.
This is where the boy nicknamed Bo became the nation's top player for a school that didn't even have a homefield. This is where he trained and lifted and studied, creating a legacy that fills these colorful halls, from the black and white photograph next to the math awards to the name of the athletic complex.
And this is where the man who was never the biggest or the strongest or fastest developed the drive and leadership that sent him to Bucs stardom and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"There's too much in his heart you can't measure," said Anthony Leach, who played with Brooks from peewee ball through high school. "There was never a doubt he was going to be great."
Brooks grew up in a modest brick house in a modest neighborhood in this modest military town just east of the Alabama border.
His mother, Geraldine, was loving but firm. She fed Brooks and his friends peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but expected them to leave the home spotless. She was so beloved that when she died in 2007, her family had to move the funeral to a larger church to accommodate everyone.
"She always wanted me to have an attitude of humility," Brooks said. "No matter what I did in life, to approach it as a humble approach."
His parents made sure he got the message in elementary school after they heard he was clowning around during class. The antics weren't acceptable, not for an oldest child who had to set an example for his little brother and sister and was expected to be a top student.
So Brooks' stepdad walked into class one day and paddled him — right there in front of everyone.
"Since then, he changed his approach to the classroom setting," said Dave Wilson, Brooks' high school defensive coordinator.
Instead of wearing baggy clothes like his classmates, he wore slacks or khakis. If a teacher didn't have an answer to one of his questions, Brooks expected a solution the next day.
Although he rode the bench on the high school baseball team, he was too strong willed to quit. Not wanting to waste the two hours during games, he headed to the end of the dugout, cracked open his books and studied.
"He was just so far ahead of the curve," said Leach, who went on to play cornerback at Tennessee-Martin. "He saw the bigger picture."
Football was only part of that picture — but a big part in his sports-crazed 59,000-person hometown.
When Brooks entered high school in 1987, Smith had just become one of the nation's all-time leading rushers for Nichols across town at Escambia High and was on his way to a record-setting NFL career. Escambia County's eight public schools were amid an 11-year run of seven state championships and four runnerup finishes. More than 12,000 fans crammed into 8,700-seat stadiums.
"Only the strong survived by the time he came along," said boxing great Roy Jones Jr., who graduated from Washington High a few years before Brooks.
"And he was strong."
On a defense for which almost every starter earned a scholarship, Brooks quickly became the focal point. Nichols remembers Florida State's then-defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, running out of a film session saying the linebacker was better than anyone he had at FSU. And Brooks was only a sophomore.
Brooks helped take Washington High to the 1989 Class 5A state semifinals as a junior, returning the first punt of his career 65 yards for touchdown in a playoff win over Winter Park Lake Howell. By the time he was a senior, Wildcats coaches left Brooks alone in the middle of the defense with one job: find the ball.
He amassed 29 sacks and almost 300 tackles during his last two seasons, and the accolades poured in. National defensive player of the year. The 1990 Dial Award as the nation's top male scholar-athlete. Washington High displayed his No. 22 jersey in its trophy case before he even graduated.
On national signing day, the Pensacola News Journal predicted his photograph would one day hang beside the Olympians and military officers on the school's wall of distinction. With Brooks' work ethic, who would doubt it?
"He was just not going to be denied," Nichols said. "Whatever it took, he did it — and a little bit more to make sure."
When Nichols was ready to leave school after a long day, Brooks would be in the weight room, begging to finish one more set. In the summers, Brooks and childhood friend Keith Campbell ran 2 miles to school every day to work out and study film so they knew every offensive wrinkle of every opponent by the time the season started.
That drive and personality fostered the natural leadership that could tame the Bucs' locker room and helped lead them to their only Super Bowl. Because his home was near a boundary between schools, he learned how to interact with people in different settings. His demeanor let him critique teammates while earning respect, not resentment.
"You could throw him in a room with 20 strangers," Nichols said, "and he'd come out leading all of them."
And he was just as comfortable with the athletes as the straight-A students.
Campbell remembers joining Brooks as one of the only football players in a tough math course. Brooks challenged him quickly: We will get the best grades in this class.
"I don't know how much he knows that meant to me personally," said Campbell, who went on to play safety at Mississippi.
This town is full of memories like that. Of his friendliness with strangers at church. Of handing out Thanksgiving feasts after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Of hearing that his alma mater needed a new football coach and last winter luring former Florida State teammate Charlie Ward to Washington High all the way from Houston.
"His name and legacy will always be a part of his hometown," said Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner.
It already is.
Brooks' framed Bucs jersey rests under NASCAR hoods at the downtown Beef 'O' Brady's. His likeness stares back from a mural on a brick building near downtown alongside famous African-Americans such as Smith, Jones and Martin Luther King Jr. As the local paper expected two decades ago, Brooks' photo hangs with the Olympians on the school's wall of distinction not far from the Roy Jones Jr./Derrick Brooks Athletic Complex.
And this weekend, that legacy will finally stretch from the gray brick buildings in his modest hometown all the way to Canton.
"I told him his mom would be proud of him going into the Hall of Fame," Campbell said. "She would have expected nothing else."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.