The belt clip on Derrick Brooks' right hip is shiny and silver, emblazoned with the logo of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But hanging from that clip on a weekday summer morning, faded and well-worn, is the security badge that identifies the former Bucs linebacker as an employee of the Tampa Bay Storm. Brooks is the team president, which for an NFL star could be a figurehead position — smile and wave for the fans, please. But the opposite is true, and the man known for making plays all over the NFL field now goes sideline to sideline in his new job.
"I really wanted the grind, to go through the nuts and bolts and pay your dues, what it took to be part of the working force," Brooks said. "I wanted to jump in, and the only way to do that was to devote a lot of my time. It's like I retired to work more."
The Arena Football League has changed greatly from the days when the Storm won four ArenaBowls from 1991-96. A bankruptcy in 2009 radically changed the league's economic model, and instead of players averaging $80,000 a year, they make $830 a game.
That means a full roster of 24 players playing an 18-game season has a combined payroll that's less than a rookie making the league minimum in the NFL. So without the allure of big money, the Storm must woo players with its charm.
"The way we run this organization, I try to model it after the NFL," Brooks said. "They see the professionalism I bring, how I treat the players. They see my relationship with them is genuine. I want to treat these men like men. I don't care whether you're making a dollar or a million dollars."
Another draw is attendance. Tampa Bay leads the league, averaging 11,402 fans (despite a losing record the past four years) at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. That's barely half of what the team averaged in its early days, playing in what is now Tropicana Field, but it could be worse — Orlando, which has a better record and led the league in attendance last year, is last at 5,421 per game.
"A lot of that following was Tim Marcum, for everything he was," Brooks said of the team's coach from 1996-2010, who left before Brooks' 2011 arrival and died in 2013. "When the organization parted ways with him, it took a lot to overcome that. He was a friend of mine, and the opportunity to help keep the tradition he started going was part of the challenge that I wanted, not only for me but for him."
Brooks hired his former Bucs teammate Jeff Gooch to be his general manager. The football side of Brooks' expertise was a given, as was the leadership the job required. Gooch had been friends with Brooks for 15 years, but he never imagined he could be so well-rounded.
"I've known him for some time, but what's been amazing for me to see is him working with guys from ticket sales, sponsorships, all those things," Gooch said. "His business acumen, for him to come in and understand what people in the business world have been doing for years and years. You see him take off in budgets, pick things up so quickly and communicate to people in all the departments."
If there's a model Brooks seeks to follow, hopefully into a front office role in the NFL, it's former Denver quarterback John Elway. He was a co-owner with the Colorado Crush for seven seasons before returning to the NFL's Broncos as their general manager and executive vice president.
Brooks consulted with Elway before following in his Arena League footsteps, and he said Elway warned that he had started out as "the guy that came and did the waving" before getting more closely involved with the team on a daily basis.
Brooks used his NFL connections to help the Storm — young coach Lawrence Samuels, one of the team's all-time best players, got to have dinner with former Bucs coach Tony Dungy and has found his team president to be helpful without being meddling, with choice words to motivate his players.
Without the huge salaries, Brooks' time with the Storm has reminded him of the importance of all the people he works with, that his actions can change their professional future.
"Every decision I make affects someone's life on a daily basis. I had to get comfortable with that," he said. "I've been a leader before in football, made decisions for what was best for the team. This job here, these decisions affect people's livelihood, their salaries, their life, their family. That's a big responsibility."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.