TAMPA — At the finest time to be a Buccaneer, he was the finest of them all.
As Derrick Brooks walks away from the team he helped redefine, such is his simple legacy: He was the best the Bucs ever had. He was the fire, he was the foundation and he was the father figure of a franchise.
Now, after the bloodiest Wednesday in team history, he is gone.
In a solemn, stunning move, the Bucs told Brooks they didn't need him anymore. They released Brooks and four other players: Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Cato June and Joey Galloway.
The jaw-dropper was Brooks, No. 55, the linebacker who has defined excellence for the Bucs since the days of orange jerseys and winking pirates. He had been here so long, and he had made so many plays, that it seemed as if he was never going to go away.
Then came Wednesday, when time finally tapped Brooks on the shoulder and told him it was time to go.
How does a team tell its greatest player he is no longer good enough? After you boil it down, after you get through the memories and the Hall of Fame talk and the admiration of what Brooks used to be, that is essentially what happened here. The Bucs decided they were better off without Brooks.
No, no matter what conspiracy theories you might hear, this was not a financial decision. No, it was not a decision based only on his age (36 in April). No, it was not a decision based on a new defensive scheme. If you know anything at all about Brooks, you know it was not a decision based upon his character.
In the end, it was a decision based on his ability. Put simply, the Bucs thought Brooks had slipped too far. Put bluntly, they felt it was time to accept applications for the job Brooks has held for 14 seasons.
For those who have witnessed Brooks' impact over the years, perhaps that sounds a little hard to swallow. You can only imagine how it felt for Brooks. It is hard to believe his release didn't hit him between the eyes.
He is a prideful man, proud of his impact and aware of his reputation. Over the years, it was that pride that drove him to become the elite outside linebacker of his generation. He simply didn't want there to be a conversation about greatness without his name in it.
As a player gets older, however, pride can trick a man. If Brooks had lost a step, or two, he wasn't going to admit it. That was typical Brooks. He was never going to surrender, and he was never going to back up.
Given that, it was pretty much bound to end like this for Brooks. The Bucs were going to have to push him out of the locker room before he was done. You can lament that it did not end in a Super Bowl or a Pro Bowl or, at the very least, an end zone after a great play. But can anyone imagine Brooks walking away after a Super Bowl?
For that matter, no one knows whether Brooks will walk away after this, either. In the days to come, Brooks has a decision to make. He is a leader, and he is a great guy in the locker room, and somewhere, there is another team ready to give him a look.
So does Brooks use his release as motivation to go somewhere else and prove the Bucs wrong? Or does he remember his final play, when his leg gave out and he was reduced to an ugly limp as he chased the Raiders' Michael Bush downfield on a 67-yard touchdown run?
The truth of it is that, for most athletes, the end is lousy. At least the Bucs didn't blow him up the way they did John Lynch, when Lynch was willing to come to camp for whatever the Bucs would offer. At least it didn't end the way it did for Warren Sapp, back when the Bucs decided to invest all of their defensive tackle money in Booger McFarland. At least it didn't end the way it did for Simeon Rice, whom the Bucs waited to cut until the day training camp opened.
Yeah, it still feels wrong. Closing the book on greatness always does.
"To me, he typifies what the Bucs defense has been about," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "When he was playing his best football, he was the best player I've ever played with. He made plays you wouldn't expect other players to make."
Brooks has been around so long that perhaps you have forgotten his arrival in 1995. The Bucs were awful in those days. Even his rookie year, when his coaches had him playing on the wrong side of the defense, playing over the tight end, it was hard to foresee greatness.
Then everything changed. With Sapp in front of him, with Lynch behind him, the Bucs defense grew teeth. But everyone always knew who the best player was.
"You're talking about a legend, man," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said.
"Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin brought the system," general manager Mark Dominik said, "but without Derrick and Warren Sapp, I'm not sure there would be a Tampa 2."
Eventually, the sting of his final day will fade, and you will remember him smothering Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick at every turn in 2002. You will remember the open-field tackles he made against Marshall Faulk when the Rams had the Greatest Show on Turf. You will remember his game-clinching interception return in the Bucs' Super Bowl triumph. You will remember how fast he ran, and how fierce he tackled.
You will remember, because around here, there will never be another linebacker to make you forget.