He drove slowly through the devastated downtown streets of his hometown Friday morning, surveying the roadside trees snapped like toothpicks, the metal highway signs crumpled in heaps on the ground, the homes with roofs and walls ripped away by a killer wind.
"I knew what we were seeing on the Internet and TV wasn't the true picture of what our city was going through," said Derrick Brooks quietly as he steered past endless images of destruction left a week earlier by Hurricane Ivan. "You have to see it with your own eyes to understand it. It hits you right in the gut."
The Bucs All-Pro linebacker had flown here early Friday on a private jet with his wife, Carol, two young sons and a brother. On the approach to the airport, where the tower remains nonfunctional since the hurricane made landfall Sept. 16, he had looked out the window and seen a sea of blue dots amid the trees _ not swimming pools, the tarps covering gaping holes atop thousands of homes.
Brooks was heading home to attend the funeral service of his great-great grandmother, Della Mae Folks, who died as the hurricane's Category 4 fury neared Pensacola. But he was also on a mission.
The man whose powerful hands are known best for inflicting misery on opposing offenses came to lift up a community _ delivering water, ice and hope to people thirsting desperately for all three.
At just past 9:30 a.m., Brooks arrived at Emanuel Baptist Church, a modest red brick building on North A Street where he spent many a Sunday morning as a child and teen. It is here that he developed his deep religious roots, here that he still comes to speak to congregation children during the year, here that a homegrown hero has returned amid a moment of crisis, in a town where power and fresh water are still a luxury.
Hugging church members who have known him since he could walk, waving to little boys and girls who idolize him, Brooks hopped onto the back of an 18-wheeler packed to the ceiling with boxes of bottled water and bags of ice, 50,000 pounds of goods in all.
The semitrailer truck owned by Able Body Labor of Palm Harbor _ a national organization providing disaster relief assistance and temporary jobs throughout hurricane-besieged Florida _ had left Pinellas County a day earlier with David Babbitt of Dunedin at the wheel.
"I was afraid I might not make it in time," he said. At Panama City, Babbitt had been diverted four hours out of his way to Montgomery, Ala., because of highway damage, but finally pulled in shortly ahead of Brooks.
Able Body CEO Frank Mongelluzzi and his son, Chris, vice president, had been hoping all week to get trucks with water and ice into Pensacola. But that was tough without the help of someone with connections in the city, a person who could help steer the aid to a specific location without any frustrating delays. That someone turned out to be Brooks.
An official from the company, Daphne Boyd, approached him after the Seattle game Sunday to see if Brooks could help get a truckload of water and ice through. The 10th-year Buc out of Florida State already had pledged $1,000 to Pensacola hurricane aid for each tackle he made against the Seahawks, resulting in a $7,000 contribution. "I said to him Sunday, "Derrick, we can do some good on this if you can help us,' and he just said, "Let's do it,' " Boyd recalled.
Now, he handed box after box of water, bag after bag of ice, off the back of the truck to his longtime church pastor, the Rev. Robert Lewis Sr., and Able Body workers. They, in turn, handed the goods to elated church members and surprised motorists, unaware of the event, who had been waved into the parking lot by the pastor.
People kept streaming onto the church grounds as news of Brooks' arrival with the much-needed water spread. There had been word that the truck was to arrive two days earlier, and many people showed up, only to learn the shipment had been delayed.
"But we all knew there had to a good reason, because Derrick would never forget us," said Sabrina Walker, 35, waiting for her water. "We're in such a dire need, and we knew he would get here. He's never forgotten where he came from. He's just an inspiration to everyone, especially the kids."
One of them, 11-year-old Josh Shumak, was busy playing with pals outside the cab of the truck. Shumak is one of dozens of children from Emanuel Baptist who Brooks has brought to Tampa over the years to attend Buc games. "He sends us things, like money for our church and school, and helps us through all the things we live though," Shumak said.
"This is just the kind of thing you expect from Derrick, nothing less," said Voncile Spotts, 59, a church member for 45 years.
Soon, Brooks, wearing a white Nike pullover and blue sweats, jumped off the truck and began carrying the heavy loads of water and ice for anyone needing help. Then, he spotted his sister, Patrina Brooks, 29, who had arrived with her children, Keyon and Keyshawn, 4, and Kierra, 8. Brooks lifted them in the air with a broad smile. "All this says a lot about him," Patrina said. "Words just can't describe his generosity."
After an hour or so, Brooks said his goodbyes and got into his car. His great-grandmother's service was coming up, but he wanted to take a short ride to the home of his pastor's mother _ or where the home used to be before it was smashed to pieces by Ivan and a tornado spawned by the hurricane.
As he drove, he reflected. "I'm doing my small part," said the player honored in 2000 as the NFL's man of the year. "This is bigger than Derrick Brooks. And I just thank God and private businesses pulling together, helping with the effort I'm trying to do. People go through everyday life storms, and to see this type of storm come through, with people losing everything, it affects you."
Brooks sees a hidden message in the heartache. "God is getting our attention," he said, driving by a sign for I-10 mangled like it was made of tin. "I honestly believe that. I just hope we grab the message: That people have lost prized possessions, homes, but they're thanking God they're here alive. Now the starting over process begins. And it's going to be a better journey this time."
One of his big motivations now is showing the world something about Florida. "Just four years ago, this state was the butt of every voting joke in this country. We were ridiculed. But now we're going to be a great example of how a state pulls together through something as devastating as these hurricanes. We're going to show them how to come out of a storm and be a shining light in the darkness."
It has not been an easy week and a half for Brooks, however, seeing the suffering from the storm, and losing the matriarch of his family. He must return in three hours to Tampa in time to fly with the Bucs, struggling at 0-2, to Oakland for a critical game Sunday night against the Raiders.
"It's a very emotional day for me to say the least," he said.
Soon, Brooks arrived at the home of the pastor's mother, Lillie May Bogan, 82. She had ridden out Hurricane Opal in 1995 in her little wood-frame house. And she was determined to ride out Ivan, too. But during the storm, the walls began to collapse. She and another son, Ruben Lewis, raced out the back door just before the kitchen ceiling collapsed. They took shelter in his car for eight hours, praying they'd survive.
Now, Brooks stood beside Bogan. He hugged her, and they stared at the rubble, mixed with little pieces of her life from decades in the house _ an upside kitchen chair, her straw fishing hat, a sewing box, Sunday school books scattered on the ground, a few sofas buried by broken beams and electrical wiring strewn like spaghetti. Mongelluzzi spotted a bouquet of artificial lavender roses beneath a fallen beam, and retrieved it for her. She smiled.
"The cap you gave me is in there," Bogan said to Brooks, referring to a Bucs hat he had signed for her.
"Don't you worry, I'll get you another one," he said. Minutes later, Brooks had to leave for the service, and Bogan proclaimed, "I love him just like he's my own son!"
Back at the church, a woman, Carolyn Richardson, had just pulled up, unaware of the event. "I can have some of this water and ice?" she asked, then jumped up and down with joy when told she could.
"Who are you guys?" she asked.
"It's from Derrick Brooks," a worker replied.
"Derrick Brooks!!" Richardson, a city employee, yelled, jumping again. "Oh, this makes me so happy, you have no idea," she said as she hopped in her car, heading off to city hall to spread the news.