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Is Brooks as good as he was?

Inside his armor, much about the warrior looks the same.

James Brooks stands among the Tampa Bay Bucs and still looks like somebody's little brother. He jogs the same way, starting with the little jump-step. He still has the kid's grin.

But when you are a mercenary, a hired gunslinger, you carry the familiar questions from town to town.

Can he still play? Is he still James Brooks?

He has been a Buc for two weeks now, but still, we do not know the answer. In his first game, against the Colts two weeks ago, he carried the ball five times for only 6 yards. He had a crucial fumble and a big dropped pass. But he played after only one practice, barely recognizing his teammates in the huddle.

"Even after one practice, I should have played better," he said. "I will play better."

Sunday in Chicago, perhaps we will see. We will see if Brooks has the same remarkable quickness that has led him to almost 8,000 rushing yards in his career, the same hands that have carried him to more than 3,600 more. We will know if he can continue to surprise people with his strength, his willingness to block, his durability.

"I still have it," Brooks said Thursday, sitting at his locker and picking at something that resembled lunch. "I still have my quickness. I can still run a 4.4. It's just that I haven't been in a situation where I can show what I can do."

Of course, every football player believes in his ability. The most common sight in the NFL is the released player who is certain he was simply underused and underappreciated by his former team. And Brooks is in his 12th season, which stacks into three careers.

So the question lingers. Can he still play?

"He has to answer that question," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. "Every player does, not just James."

In practice, Wyche has seen the quickness that brings to mind the Brooks of old, the Bengal from 1984-'91, the Brooks so quick that sometimes would beat blockers to the hole.

"I don't know how much time he has left," Wyche said. "But we think he can help us this year."

If so, Wyche will have to figure out when to use Brooks and when to use Gary Anderson. Both are quick, darting backs who catch the ball well. Both are third-down specialists. And you wonder: How many change-of-pace backs does a team need?

"I don't think it's a situation that will come to a head," Wyche said. "Both are over 30. Both might get some nicks. We have room for both."

How long has Brooks played? Forever, it seems.

Brooks sits and talk of high school days long gone, and of the cutup of the team, a hugely muscled man who used to squeeze into a Volkswagen. A guy by the name of Ron Simmons, long gone to the world of professional wrestling.

He talks of his college days, when Auburn shuttled among a trio of backs. One was Brooks. The other guys were William Andrews and Joe Cribbs. Long gone to the world of alumni dinners.

He talks of his early days in pro football, when he played on a San Diego offense that included players such as Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson, Charley Joiner and Wes Chandler. Long gone to broadcasting, insurance and car sales, etc.

Yet, Brooks is still here. He came out of college, and the predictions were that someone would break him inside a year. Yet, he stands today without scars. He has had no knee problems, no shoulder problems. His worst injury has been a broken thumb.

Brooks says that it is more than his body that remains intact, however. It is his spirit.

So often, money seems to buy the love players feel for this game. It is a paradox that the richer they become, the less joy they find. Instead, talk seems to turn into who is making what and where.

"That never happened to me," Brooks said. "I'm still like a little kid. I like playing this game as much as when I used to play it for free."

Financially, Brooks says he is set. Yet, he is in Tampa Bay, living out of a hotel room, struggling to keep from joining football's afterlife.

"I don't want to quit," he said. "When I do, they'll have to take me out of my bed and run me off. They'll have to take the football out of my hands."

Sunday, we get a clue as to how long that might be.

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