Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn educate Bucs' rookies

TAMPA

Derrick Brooks is commanding the room like a defensive huddle, pacing back and forth and leaning toward Bucs players as he speaks.

It is the first day of the team's three-day rookie transition program and the message at every symposium for first-year players is the same: The odds are stacked against you. It's unlikely you will make it in this league. Take advantage of the experience and decide that your character is more important than your pro football career.

The idea is to begin with the end in mind.

Of course on this day, there are 24 rookies who hear what is being said and it's likely all 24 believe the speakers are talking about the guy next to them.

"No. 55 belongs to the Bucs. If you're fortunate enough, you'll see it every Sunday. It's hanging up in the stadium. It belongs to them. The name beside it, that's what belongs to me," Brooks said. "And I never got it confused. Because at the end of the day, you want people to connect to that name, not that number."

Brooks, 43, is one of only three Bucs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He never missed a game in his 14 seasons, all with Tampa Bay. But despite being named to the Pro Bowl 11 times, winning a Super Bowl and becoming the defensive player of the year in 2002, there came a point when even Brooks was told his "services were no longer needed."

"How many of you guys thought I retired? Raise your hand," Brooks said. "No. I was fired in this same building that I'm standing in now. …

"It took me about 15 years, 14 years of playing and one year after I got released, to understand it. I understood because of the way I carried myself. But I never really got it until one year after I was fired."

• • •

Until this year, the NFL conducted the rookie symposium, most recently held in Cleveland, with a trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it only included drafted players. This year, each team was tasked with preparing its first-year players for the challenges of the NFL, highlighting issues specific to the franchise with the use of former players and members of the coaching staff.

The Bucs are fortunate to have two Walter Payton Man of the Year winners at their disposal — Brooks, the Tampa Bay Storm president who also serves as an NFL appeals officer with James Thrash, and former running back Warrick Dunn, who rushed for more than 10,000 yards with the Bucs and Falcons.

Money is a constant theme of the transition program, whether it's earning, spending, saving or protecting it from unscrupulous financial planners and needy relatives who suddenly come out of the woodwork.

The three things that cost players their earnings the most are bad investments, failed marriages and child support.

Brooks asks how many players have a financial manager, someone who pays bills for them. A handful raise their hands. He warns them about handing over power of attorney and too much personal information without requesting the same in return.

"If I could give you a piece of advice, pay your own bills," Brooks said. "It takes only one hour a month. You need to know what's coming in and what's going out."

The first day of the transition program is dedicated mostly to character issues as outlined by a short video from the NFL: respect, integrity, resilience and responsibility to team.

Brooks seizes on his own definition of team: T is for trust, E for effort, A for accountability and M for motivation. With every topic, it comes back to character.

"When you go out, there's going to be some places that hook you up," Brooks said. "You're going to go somewhere and not have to pay for a meal, pay for a car wash. But how about that one time you've got to pay? Do you have a problem with it? How about that time you don't go to the front of the line? Are you going to have a problem with it? I had a problem with it.

"I remembered, No. 55 got the free meal, not Derrick Brooks. You better respect or you're going to get caught."

Brooks tries to engage the players in a question and answer session. "Let's talk," he said. He spearheads the conversation by picking on Florida State place-kicker Roberto Aguayo, a controversial second-round pick.

"How'd you feel when everyone said they should not have picked you that high? You felt (ticked) off. Don't lie to me. 'I'm going to show them.' C'mon, man, that's what you felt. Then when you got here you were nervous."

"I knew what I could do," Aguayo said. "There was a little anger, but I knew."

Brooks countered, "Then you thought Jameis (Winston, Aguayo's former FSU teammate) was down there so I'll be all right."

Brooks then pleads for players to finish their college education and emphasizes one of his standard lines: "Education isn't something you fall back on, it's what you stand on."

A first-round draft pick in '95, Brooks went back to FSU and received a master's degree 31/2 later.

"Rudy Harris was our starting fullback. He started to get taped one day and our personnel director came up and whispered something in his ear. He kicked all the tape off the table and went into a cussing tirade," Brooks said.

"The next morning I got on the phone with our academic adviser at Florida State and said, 'My degree is not enough. I just saw a man get fired.' For all those who have not graduated, please go back and get your degree."

Then he noted that the NFL has programs and funding for continuing education.

Finally, Brooks shares a secret of his longevity and durability. He took painstaking care of his body.

"Your body is your physical enterprise," he said. "This is a business. What you put into your body? Those are the returns you are going to get out of it.

"Another little tidbit, and the NFL might like me telling you this: Every time I went in that training room, I documented it. Every time somebody touched me, (I) wrote the doctor checked this. I've got a bin full of notebooks."

• • •

On the second day, Dunn takes the stage and it's obvious to those who know him that he's not the same introverted person who left the Bucs as a free agent after the 2001 season.

His story is a familiar one. The oldest of six children to a single parent, his mother, Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers, was ambushed and shot to death while helping make a night bank drop. Dunn was 18 years old.

"My life changes just like that," said Dunn, snapping his fingers. "And my priority became my family."

Dunn explained, in explicit detail, how driven he was to succeed, not just for himself, but to care for his family. A first-round pick by the Bucs in '97, he was named rookie of the year. Statistically, his second season was slightly better, but he said he struggled when three of his teenage siblings came to live with him.

"All of you guys have people depending on you," Dunn said. "This is an opportunity to make their lives better. My brothers and sisters still have to work. But I've helped them as much as I can.

"People call me cheap. I spend on necessities. You have an opportunity to make a lot of money. But you have an opportunity to make a difference in your own personal lives and in the lives of your family."

Because of his experience, Dunn began his Home for the Holidays charitable initiative, making the down payment on houses for single-parent families. He got corporate sponsors to provide appliances and every necessity, right down to linens and bed sheets.

"When I started the program, I wrote the check out of my pocket," Dunn said. "I wanted to do something in the community that could help me in a sense."

His real healing, however, didn't begin until he got to Atlanta. Despite five good seasons with the Bucs, the team didn't make a competitive offer to re-sign him. "It's a cold, cold business," Dunn said. "Just what it is. To make matters worse, I missed out on winning a Super Bowl."

When Dunn got to Atlanta, he was encouraged by former receiver Shawn Jefferson to seek counseling. Dunn discovered he suffered from depression.

"For eighth months, I was sitting in a room with a little crazy old white lady who was my counselor and I never looked her into the eye," Dunn said. "I can tell you I knew everything in that room. But eventually, I got there."

Dunn closes by discussing an even more difficult transition that lies ahead: what to do when you're no longer an NFL player. He also warns players about social media.

"Trust me, the guys upstairs, they know everything you do," Dunn said. "I wouldn't do it. You know what they're doing? Critiquing you. Judging you. A guy was dropped from a team because of what he put on social media. In the real world, the same thing happens."

• • •

Duke Preston, who played center for five NFL seasons with the Bills, Packers and Cowboys, is the Bucs' director of player development who organized the rookie transition program, which includes players dividing into teams for various exercises.

Dinner one night is at Cask Social, a trendy South Tampa restaurant owned by Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson. The choice of the eatery is not by accident. Jackson is the most respected player on the Bucs roster. Not only is he entering his 12th season, but the three-time Pro Bowl receiver is a pillar in the Tampa community who won the NFL's Salute to Service Award for his work with military families. He also is the best mentor of young players on the Bucs roster.

The dinner is really just an appetizer to the real purpose of the outing — interaction with rookie teammates in a social environment, a chance to get to know one another as people, not just players.

The highlight of the third day is an event hosted by the Bucs designed to get youths to be active. But before that, the Bucs rookies were educated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and domestic violence prevention organizations.

They also heard one of the most compelling speakers in the series — former Tennessee Vols safety Inky Johnson, who lost the use of his right arm after a tackle against Air Force in 2006.

Football careers are short-lived, and that's the message Brooks wanted rookies to take from the transition program.

"I don't think they realize that some of their days are numbered," Brooks said. "I think right now they're still in their honeymoon phase and the reality is in that room alone, there's not many spots. It's just the law of averages.

"At the same time, they've got to use that to motivate them. No matter where you are, 60-80 days from now, you have this information and you can use it to change your life."

 
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