"Brooks knew (Raiders quarterback Rick) Gannon was going to telegraph some throws. We played our signature coverage, and he did what he does."
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden
In the final two minutes, in the final 10 yards, Derrick Brooks looked up into the cheering crowd and held his hand high in pure celebration. It's the iconic, lasting image of the Bucs' Super Bowl victory in the 2002 season, and the signature moment of a Hall of Fame career. The historic win already well secured, Brooks had lurked in the middle of the field, read the eyes of Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, picked off a pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown, an exclamation point in a dominating win. "The timing of that moment, to basically seal the deal, that's what fans will remember," Brooks said, sitting in his car on a busy weekday morning outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The play was also emblematic of a dominant season that made Brooks the NFL's defensive player of the year, his fifth defensive touchdown. In NFL history, no linebacker scored more TDs than Brooks did, with seven in regular-season play.
"Nobody was more instinctive than Derrick Brooks," former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He almost knew the routes that were coming before they happened. You couple that with tremendous playing speed. The great players, they have a knack for making impact plays in tough situations. That's what Brooks did."
Gruden remembers that defensive tackle Warren Sapp sacked Gannon on the play before to set up third and 18.
"Brooks knew Gannon was going to telegraph some throws. We played our signature coverage, and he did what he does," he said. "He stole the ball in the middle of the field, and not many guys at linebacker can run with the ball after a catch like Derrick Brooks."
In his first seven NFL seasons, Brooks made five Pro Bowls and had 12 interceptions but had reached the end zone just once, picking off a Daunte Culpepper pass in a 2000 home rout of the Vikings. But Brooks said Gruden made it a team priority to get scoring from his defense, as well as points from his defensive leader.
"One of the things he noticed when he got here was that I got my hands on a lot of balls. A lot of pass breakups, but that's all it was," said Brooks, who came to the Bucs as a late first-round pick from Florida State in 1995. "He said, 'Now take the next step. Turn it into scoring opportunities.' I started thinking about it on a daily basis. We played great defense, but we were not putting it in the end zone."
Fans in a recent ESPN poll named the Brooks interception as the most memorable play in Bucs history (with 60 percent of the votes), and cornerback Ronde Barber's clinching interception return for a TD in the NFC Championship Game second. Brooks didn't get MVP honors in San Diego because safety Dexter Jackson had two key interceptions.
"I still say our defense is in that top two or three conversation (all time)," Brooks said, "because we put the ball in the end zone nine times. No one else came close to that."
And while Brooks recognizes that the context of that touchdown makes it a lasting moment, it wasn't even his personal favorite pick-six that season. That honor goes to a 97-yard return in a 25-0 drubbing of Baltimore for the team's first win, and Brooks remembers his linebackers coach, Joe Barry, running all the way down the sideline with him, stride for stride.
"That's why it's my favorite," Brooks said.
Ask Brooks for his favorite moments, and they're not in the end zone, or even in games. They're from the hours unseen, even unappreciated by most, from the humble time the Bucs spent together in the modest old One Buc Place that preceded the current team facilities.
"My memories are the practices, the grind, the old One Buc, a small space where you had to get to know your teammate because they were on top of you every day," he said. "The rusty weights, not complaining, just lifting them. The old woodshed built a championship."
Brooks is unquestionably a Hall of Famer by his production — nearly 1,300 tackles, 24 forced fumbles — and by his relentless longevity, playing every game in 14 seasons and starting every game for the final 13. But for teammates, what stands out is the sheer awareness he built up by studying tendencies and learning opponents, by knowing exactly where to be to make the big plays.
"Derrick, like a lot of guys on that defense, had an encyclopedic understanding of what was supposed to go on, where you were supposed to be, the plays you could and couldn't make," Barber said. "If you do it enough, if you marry that with his athleticism and intelligence, it fell right into place. He possessed all that in bunches."
Brooks himself was a quiet leader, only stepping into a more vocal role in his final seasons. For years, he led the Bucs by example, with an attitude and presence that fans saw on Sundays and teammates saw every day.
"I always felt like I was under Brooks, never felt like I was a peer, just in a reverent way, just because he commands so much respect," Barber said. "He was my example, so it was hard to be on par with him."
As his leadership role grew, Brooks looked for inspiration in other successful leaders, not just in football but in history. He took notes from the words and actions of Nelson Mandela, of Martin Luther King Jr., and applied them to his life.
"I started studying leaders and leadership. Historical figures, our presidents, generals, leaders of men," he said. "What is it to be, in that pressure moment, calm? And the greatest leader was Jesus. So I studied all that, prayed so hard about me being ready to take this on. I wanted success for the Bucs."
After linebacker Hardy Nickerson's departure following the 1999 season, Brooks was a leader, in the locker room and all over the field, and the team's greatest successes followed.
"When something needed to be said, the eyes kind of turned to me," he said. "From my onfield success to my demeanor, how I approach people, it just happened on its own, and I accepted it."
If Brooks' career is remembered for his leadership and his ability to take the ball to the end zone, his career with the Bucs ended without that joy of taking something all the way to completion. As was the case with Sapp, and with another core defensive leader in safety John Lynch, Brooks was unceremoniously released in February 2009 with other veterans, including Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway.
"I was selfishly hoping mine would be different, and it wasn't," said Brooks, who has been as active in retirement, founding the high school that bears his name, leading charity efforts and working with the Tampa Bay Storm.
Of the Bucs' central nucleus that led the charge to Super Bowl glory, only Barber was able to leave on his own terms, something that Brooks cherished from the sideline.
"I went to Ronde in his last few years and said, 'Man, please, at least somebody from this core group have a better ending than all of us,' " he said. "I got a little bit of peace that he was able to do that."
What helped Brooks carry on, what allowed him to move on emotionally to life after football on Sundays every fall, was the way Tampa Bay fans embraced him after the NFL was gone. From the beginning, he was loved as a person as much as he was a player, so that bond stayed after his cleats and pads were hung up.
"That helped me heal after my release. It was so much easier to overcome, me being able to transition into life after football," he said. "That was part of healing. Around his town, people appreciated Derrick Brooks more than No. 55."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.