Finally, Derrick Brooks can close the door. Finally, he can say goodbye.
Eighteen months after the NFL gave up on Brooks, he is finally ready to give up on the NFL.
Brooks, a former linebacker, will announce his retirement today. Try to understand if he has to force the word from his lips. After all, it was never in Brooks to go peacefully.
Say this for Brooks. He fought the notion of retirement about as hard as a man can. When the Tampa Bay Bucs pushed him out of the door in February 2009, he thought they were wrong, darn it. He refused to agree with those who suggested his career was over. He worked out for teams wearing the wrong colored jerseys. He waited by the phone for another coach offering him another chance. He would not surrender to the game tapes that said he was no longer the player he had been.
Call him stubborn or call him contrary or call him prideful. Right to the end, Brooks thought he had more to offer, and he was willing to listen to anyone who would take him up on it. After a regular season and two offseasons, however, it became obvious the league had moved on without him.
In a way, this makes perfect sense in the case of Brooks. As a player, he would not sit when he was hurt and he would not quit when he was behind. He never backed up, he never backed down, and he never allowed excuses into the locker room.
Knowing all of that, did you expect him to simply walk away?
For an athlete, for a man who has taken great pride in being special, closing time is a difficult concept. All of his life he has tried to be more than some thought he could be. Just because others are telling you it is time to go, does that mean you believe them?
If it is hard to blame Brooks, 37, for hanging on, however, there was a price for the rest of us. If he wasn't saying goodbye, then no one else could, either. Until he retired, his legacy was not complete.
Now that it is, we can start to refer to Brooks as a legend once again. We can argue over whether he was the best Buccaneer player of them all (I'm on record as saying he is). We can discuss how soon he will go into the Hall of Fame.
He was one of the top two or three outside linebackers the NFL has seen, certainly in the top handful. He was fast and smart. He brought the punctuation to a football play. When he closed in on a runner, the play was over.
Who was a better outside linebacker? There was Lawrence Taylor, who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. In his best moments, you could make an argument for Ted Hendricks. Maybe. Those from Pittsburgh love Jack Ham, a player Brooks was compared with often.
But Derrick Thomas? Andre Tippett? Bobby Bell? Rickey Jackson? Dave Wilcox? Those guys are all in the Hall of Fame. I'd take Brooks over any of them.
"If you don't count the pass-rushers,'' former teammate Warren Sapp said Wednesday, "then D. Brooks is No. 1. He's the best (outside) linebacker ever to play. He was the highway patrol. He covered every ounce of yardage, side to side, up and down. You couldn't get away from him. He's a beast. He's unbelievable.''
And 10 years from now?
"At least, he'll be the president of Florida State University,'' Sapp said.
There are so many stories about Brooks, about his open-field tackles against Marshall Faulk, about his pursuit of Michael Vick, about his game-sealing interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl victory of 2002.
"There are guys you can remember who had a bad year,'' former Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "I don't know when his bad year was. Maybe in middle school, but I'm not sure he wasn't great then, too.
"Derrick may never get the ranking he deserves. He's cursed by consistency. He was a great player every week.''
Tim Ruskell, now pro personnel director of the Bears, remembers bringing in Brooks to talk to a group of college athletes the Bucs thought might go undrafted. They were interested in signing a few of the players as free agents.
At the time, Brooks was in his third or fourth season, and his career was just taking off. But that day, Ruskell introduced Brooks as a "future Hall of Famer.''
Said Ruskell: "All I will say is he's the best I've seen. Who would I put over him? I can't. There was nothing he couldn't do. I remember going up to him before the '99 NFC Championship Game. He was so intense, you couldn't talk to him. He wouldn't acknowledge your existence. I've never seen a player that focused in my life.''
Sapp will tell you about the first time he ever saw Brooks. The two were teammates in the Georgia-Florida High School game, but Brooks was a couple of days late reporting for practice because he was his high school's valedictorian.
"He came running across the field, and you noticed that grown-man run of his,'' Sapp said. "I was playing tight end, and I made a move and went over the middle. I caught the ball and I turned, and this blur went right by my nose. I thought I had left him on the other side of the field. If it had been live, he would have decapitated me.''
So why didn't another team sign Brooks last year? Was the tape that bad? Were that many teams switching to the 3-4? Is it that important to play special teams when you're a backup linebacker? How much did the loss of Brooks have to do with the Bucs going from winning nine games in '08 to only three in '09?
Here's the thing: It no longer matters.
As of today, Brooks is that rare, face-of-a-franchise legend. He is a collection of memories that reminds fans of what used to be around here. Together with Sapp, they are the Lewis and Clark who led a franchise to a better day.
Today, Brooks closes the book on his career. As a linebacker, his greatness is complete.
His legacy? That's going to last until they stop making shoulder pads.