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Brooks not Super, but he is a Starr

He has taken children to South Africa, to Washington and to the Grand Canyon. He is involved with Tampa Bay area Boys & Girls Clubs, the March of Dimes, is a member of the board of trustees for Florida State University and a member of the NFL Players Union Diversity Committee.

Oh, Derrick Brooks also is a devout Christian who can play some football.

For his years of such service, the Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Saturday became the 16th recipient of the Bart Starr Award, given annually to the NFL player who exemplifies outstanding character on the field, in the home and in the community.

"When I receive these awards, I say it's not me, it's a reflection of God's work through me," said Brooks, who was co-recipient of the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2000. "It's the opportunity he afforded a 160-pound linebacker from Pensacola, Fla. It's the home of Roy Jones Jr. and Emmitt Smith. I'm just a guy that God has chosen to do great work. It's his work. I'm a small part, the instrument that he's driving."

Brooks joins a list of some of the NFL's more prominent players whose performance on the field was matched only by their conduct and service off the field. The list includes former teammate Trent Dilfer, Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Mike Singletary and Anthony Munoz, as well as Darrell Green, Aeneas Williams, Brent Jones and Cris Carter.

Brooks said he was humbled to be among such NFL greats and was stunned when Bart Starr placed a call to him Friday to tell him about his selection.

Brooks said he had to pull onto the side of the road when Starr called him on his cell phone: "It did (humble me). To be on a statue with guys who have meant not so much to the game, but to society. It's humbling to me."

The award was named after Starr, a Hall of Fame quarterback from the Packers who was a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

SPEAKING OF MENTORS: Standing a few feet from former coach Tony Dungy, Brooks reminisced about the Bucs' title run and said he wished Dungy could have been a part of the glory.

"One of the most difficult things, to be honest and on a personal level, was that I wasn't able to share that moment with Coach Dungy," Brooks said. "We kind of grew up together in this league. Him as a head coach, me as a player. I have gotten to know Coach on a personal level, beyond football, so much so that he actually was brave enough to take the Africa trip with me. That was a moment that I stepped back personally and wished that I could have shared with him. But he was with us with spirit and true to his character, wished us well."

MIDDLE-OF-THE-NIGHT EAST: The Super Bowl parties for U.S. troops in Iraq will start hours before dawn, and there won't be any beer. But at least in Tikrit, soldiers have a lavish venue: They'll be watching a cinema-sized screen in a former palace of Saddam Hussein.

At bases across the country, the 130,000 American troops will be able to catch the game live (starting at 2:25 a.m. Monday, Iraqi time) in mess halls and recreation centers.

If waking up in the middle of the chilly Iraqi night is too daunting, many bases will tape the game, which is being aired from Houston on the American Forces Radio and Television Service, and replay it later.

GIANT LETDOWN: After 10 years of being passed over by the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, former Giants linebacker Harry Carson has had enough. Carson told Newsday that he wants his name removed from future ballots because he is tired of what he considers the politics of the selection process.

"For 10 years, they've told me I'm not good enough, so I believe them," Carson said of the voters. "I'm tired of having to put myself and my family through this year after year."

TITANS HIRE McGINNIS: Former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis was hired as a defensive assistant. McGinnis will be an assistant head coach, focusing on defense and the linebackers.

DOGG POUND: Rapper Snoop Dogg was on hand as the Patriots went through a brief walkthrough practice at Reliant Stadium.

Players' friends and family members accompanied the team, including Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan, twin brother of Patriots outside linebackers coach Rob Ryan.

Snoop Dogg was there with a youth football team called the Snoop Dogg All Stars.

UP NEXT: Representatives from Jacksonville, host city of the 2005 Super Bowl, have been in Houston all week setting the stage for their game.

Among them was Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, who joked that he already is fielding questions about trying to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

"It has no bearing on what we want to do, which is develop as a team and get in the playoffs," Del Rio said. "The fact that it's in Jacksonville is great. We would love to get it done. It would make it extra special. I have heard (the talk), and I will continue to. I understand that. It's neat. It's never been done. We're the next one with an opportunity."

PLAY LONG AND PROSPER: According to statistics provided by the NFL Players Association, the number of older players in the league continues to grow under the current collective-bargaining agreement, which allows players and teams to extend careers through creative contracts.

Raiders defensive end Trace Armstrong, president of the NFLPA, said before any kind of free agency, the historical average number of players with eight years or more in any one season was 263.

In the advent of free agency, from 1989 to 1992, the averaged increased to 290. From 1993 to now, it has jumped to an average of 337 players.

"You can see what this system has done for players," Armstrong said. "It's done exactly what we intended it to do _ give players their fair market value."

STEROID FLAP: Whether intentional or not, President George W. Bush's challenge to sports leagues such as the NFL to do something about performance enhancement drugs didn't go unnoticed. The players, however, are a little hot at Bush's assumptions.

"I was real upset that we were painted with the same brush as baseball when it comes to steroids," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said. "We have taken a position, from the beginning, the players have supported getting steroids out of the game. Zero tolerance."

Armstrong said the perception that there is widespread steroid use in the NFL is a slap in the face.

"Our players feel like we should be recognized for the active role that we have taken," he said. "No one has the measures that we have as a league.

"These are things players agree to and believe very strongly about."

STAY IN SCHOOL: As with the league, the union does not support early entry into the draft and will not endorse Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's attempt to litigate his way to eligibility.

"We've always encouraged players to stay in college," NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen said. "We've been able to show that players who stay in college and have gotten their degrees end up having longer careers and making more money in the NFL. That's the message we always tried to send to colleges."

While the number of early entrant applicants continues to rise, the number of players in the league with degrees also has risen.

Data provided by the league indicates that there are 880 players with undergraduate degrees, 15 with graduate degrees. At least this year there appears, Berthelsen said, to be a correlation between number of players with degrees and success.

The Panthers have the highest number of players with degrees (42). The Colts are second with 37 and the Patriots are third with 35.

Pointing out that children in general would rather watch television than educate themselves, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the problem goes beyond the draw of the athletic spotlight.

"We've got to get our whole society to understand that education is critical," Tagliabue said. "Ultimately, it's not for the sports leagues, it's for everyone else in society working with us."

WHO'S MORE IMPORTANT?: A review of the growing salaries and franchise numbers per position indicates that over the past few years the position that has seen the highest pay increase is cornerback.

It has increased more than 300 percent during that time, according to NFLPA figures. The second-highest increase has been at receiver, with offensive linemen coming in third. Which position has declined? Defensive ends have gone down despite the apparent value placed on them.

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?: Setbacks on and off the field come and go, but they are not likely to break the resolve of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. He knows about building from scratch.

Richardson, who was a member of the NFL championship Baltimore Colts in 1959, took his playoff check, estimated at $3,500 after tax, he said, and turned it into a substantial food service empire.

Richardson said he isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

"We bought a Hardee's franchise, the first one," Richardson said of his first venture into business. "I squirted mustard and ketchup and put pickles on rolls. I wrapped hamburgers up and sold those for 15 cents. Then we built more and more, and eventually, several hundred."

Richardson was coach John Fox's choice to talk to the team during its pre-Super Bowl walk-through practice at Reliant Stadium Saturday.

"I asked him if he wouldn't mind speaking to the team _ not as the owner, but as a player who played on a similar stage in similar circumstances," Fox said afterward.

ROOKIE NO MORE: Facing arguably the best front four in the NFL this season, Patriots center Dan Koppen would have had his work cut out for him anyway today.

But considering he is a rookie, that's a whole different deal, right?

Wrong!

Koppen has started 17 straight games, isn't considered a rookie by his teammates and said he is ready for the monumental challenge.

"I think it is a combination of the coaches and the older guys on the line that helped me adjust," said the 6-foot-2, 296-pounder out of Boston College. "We just try to come to work each day and get better.

"Unless you are a first-round pick, it comes as a shock if you play as much as I did as a rookie."

While Koppen admits that the Panthers' defensive front has dominant virtually all offensive lines this season, neither he nor his linemates can afford to make changes now.

"I think that we respect them," he said. "They reached the Super Bowl because they are good. But you can't go into a game intimidated by them.

"We prepare the same way that we have all season. We don't pay attention to the hype that is out there."

PULL THAT CREDENTIAL: Pressed on his most memorable moment from Tuesday's media session, Patriots tight end Daniel Graham replied: "I think the strangest question I had was: What was my favorite pregame Super Bowl meal? I guess the guy didn't know that this is my first Super Bowl, so I hadn't had one yet."

HEADED TO THE MARKET: The 12 members of the Bucs who become unrestricted free agents March 3: receiver Reggie Barlow, offensive linemen Cosey Coleman and Cornell Green, tight ends Rickey Dudley and Todd Yoder, safety David Gibson, running backs Thomas Jones and Aaron Stecker, quarterback Shaun King, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Nate Webster and kicker Tom Tupa.

By comparison, the Panthers (17) and Patriots (20) combine for 37 players who will become free agents this offseason.

NO RUN ZONE: Considering the success of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, the Panthers are expected to try to run the ball at New England. After all, the Panthers averaged 130.9 rushing. Davis had 103.1 yards per game and had seven games in which he rushed for at least 100 yards. That doesn't appear to be too much of a problem for the Patriots.

"We've dealt with strong running games just about every week," safety Rodney Harrison said. "We've stopped (Miami's) Ricky Williams and only one guy, (Denver's) Clinton Portis, ran for 100 yards on us. We've gone against (Jacksonville's) Fred Taylor, (Indianapolis') Edgerrin James and (Tennessee's) Eddie George. Time and time again, there's been a challenge for us. It's just a matter of whether or not we're going to stop him with seven or eight men."

_ ROGER MILLS, TIMES WIRES

HOW WE SEE IT

Times staff predictions for Super Bowl XXXVIII:

Rick Stroud: Patriots 24, Panthers 14

Roger Mills: Panthers 21, Patriots 20

Gary Shelton: Patriots 3, Panthers 2

John Romano: Panthers 16, Patriots 13

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