Bobby Bowden stepped into the modest brick home in Pensacola with an important task at hand.
The legendary Florida State coach was hoping to seal the deal with one of the nation's top recruits, linebacker Derrick Brooks. It was January 1991, and Bowden's Seminoles were in the midst of a streak of 14 consecutive top-five finishes. But Brooks had many options, with some Pensacola lawyers pushing for the Booker T. Washington High star to follow in the footsteps of fellow local hero Emmitt Smith and go to Florida.
"He could have gone anywhere," Bowden said.
But the coach was a pretty good closer. Brooks wanted to go to Florida State, and football had little to do with it; the proximity, 2½ hours from home, and the education he would receive were the top reasons.
As Bowden sat down in the living room with Brooks and his mother, Geraldine, Brooks' 6-year-old sister, Latoya, crawled up from the floor onto the coach's lap. Soon, she fell asleep in Bowden's arms.
"I looked at my mom and she nodded, and I could tell by her demeanor, that is the coach she wanted me to play for," Brooks said. "It's a true story."
In Brooks' life story, he feels FSU is where he grew from a kid into a young man, having to go through some "heartaches and heartbreaks." Bowden, the Hall of Fame coach and father figure, helped mold and motivate him.
Brooks rewarded the faith, with the two-time All American helping deliver Bowden's first national championship (1993) and getting selected to the College Football Academic Hall of Fame.
Brooks, 41, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, became the ultimate 'Nole, giving back long after he left by spending 10 years on the school's board of trustees.
"I couldn't have asked for a better college experience," he said.
While Brooks helped redefine the weakside linebacker position in the NFL, he began his college career as a third-string strong safety.
The Seminoles used that transition model with several players, and Brooks, just 190 pounds as a freshman, needed to grow.
Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said he doesn't know if FSU ever had a player with Brooks' instincts and vision. "Him and (Hall of Fame cornerback) Deion Sanders were pretty close," Andrews said. But Brooks had an inauspicious start in the secondary, recalling the time he bit on a play-action fake four times in a row during two-a-days his freshman year.
"Coach Andrews came up to me and said, 'Hey, if you get beat again, just keep running, go down to the Greyhound bus station, tell them to charge Coach Andrews' credit card and you get a ticket to Pensacola. You keep going and don't come back. When you get home, call the office and I'll FedEx you all your belongings. I'll be fine, we'll replace you. Matter of fact, we'll send you somewhere else to get the degree.'
"I go home and I'm destroyed. I call my mom and I'm like, 'I can't believe this coach, he tells me to get a ticket on Greyhound and go home.' She's like, 'Well son, don't get beat deep.' I'm like, 'Wow.' "
Quipped Andrews: "I said a lot of things during my coaching career I didn't totally mean."
Midway through his freshman year, Brooks was moved to linebacker full time.
"The rest,'" former FSU linebackers coach Wally Burnham said, "is history."
Brooks' Seminoles' teams were stacked. There was Marvin Jones, Derrick Alexander, Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn and William Floyd.
"We felt our toughest competition was practice," Brooks said.
But Brooks found a way to stand out. It wasn't just his chiseled frame — former FSU receiver Kez McCorvey saying they called Brooks "Unga Bunga" since he looked like a caveman.
"He's one of the best leaders I've ever been around — period," said McCorvey.
Everyone has a favorite Brooks play. For Ward, it was Brooks diving across the line on fourth and 1 to hit an N.C. State running back as he got the ball. "It was amazing," Ward said. "It was something I had never seen."
McCorvey recalled Brooks stuffing a Clemson running back on a goal-line stand. "He hit the tailback so hard it was like a pinball machine," he said. "He's hit me so hard I got mad at the coaches: 'Don't call that (play).' "
But Brooks' favorite moment was the epic goal-line stand against Kansas in a 42-0 win in the opener of the 1993 championship season. Andrews said it was 130 degrees on the field at the New Jersey Meadowlands, and the Jayhawks were denied after running 10 plays inside the 5, six inside the 1.
"I'll always remember that," Brooks said.
"Unbelievable," Andrews said.
Ward said it was a turning point in the season. Said Dunn: "You felt like, 'Wow, this could be the start of something great.' "
The Seminoles would post three shutouts in the first five games, with Brooks outscoring all five opponents combined. FSU beat Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl to win the title.
"Just seeing Coach Bowden in that locker room, with the monkey off his back, the criticism being buried," Brooks said. "He thanked us so many times. You had to be there to feel the chills in the room."
You ask Brooks his toughest moment at FSU, and it wasn't any loss or injury. It wasn't a "Wide Right."
It was his first C. Brooks got two C's his freshman year, dropping his grade-point average to 2.8 and prompting a meeting with Bowden.
"He said, 'Derrick, you're going to be the top academic performer in your class every year,' " Brooks said. " 'Don't let this happen again. I don't expect you to come in here with anything less than a 3.5. This is unacceptable.'
"He said, 'Derrick, make this the last time I'm ever disappointed in your performance.' "
Brooks took it to heart, finishing with a 3.89 cumulative GPA in earning a degree in communications in three years. He received his master's degree from FSU in 2001 and earned an honorary doctorate from Saint Leo University. In June, Brooks was inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame.
"That's major," Brooks said. "In all the hall of fames, I've had teammates, but that one is just me, staring down the books and going in there performing. I take great pride in that."
Brooks' impact on FSU lingered long after he was drafted in the first round by Tampa Bay in 1995. In 2003, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Brooks to the FSU board of trustees, a stint that lasted until last summer.
"(Brooks) is a great guy and a fantastic leader, on and off the field," Bush said. "He matched his exceptional football career with a strong record of service to his community and his alma mater."
Brooks said that most expected him to serve on the sports committee, but he chose the business and finance and student services committees.
"It was about serving the students, being there for them," he said. "I did the best I could to help bring change and keep the diversity there."
Brooks brought perspective, reminding students that he was suspended two games his senior season as one of 11 players involved in FSU's Foot Locker scandal. Players received free merchandise in a $5,900 shopping spree funded by would-be agents, with Brooks getting a couple of shirts.
"I made a bad decision to accept something I thought was not illegal, but it was," Brooks said. "I tell people if I overcame that to sitting on this trustees board, you can overcome anything in life."
More than 20 years after first setting foot in Brooks' living room, Bowden, 84, couldn't be prouder. He has coached two Heisman Trophy winners, 26 All-Americans and nearly 30 first-round picks, but he says Brooks is the best ambassador the program could ever have.
"He's one of those rare football players that had everything," Bowden said. "He was an excellent student, his character was excellent, and he had all the physical tools you look for in a great football player. He's the kind of role model we need nowadays."
Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
"I go home and I'm destroyed. I call my mom and I'm like, 'I can't believe this coach, he tells me to get a ticket on Greyhound and go home.' She's like, 'Well, son, don't get beat deep.' I'm like, 'Wow.' "