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FIRST-DAY SORENESS

Veterans reel a bit over Simeon Rice's exit, then everyone moves forward. Derrick Brooks has become accustomed to the sting of seeing his defensive mates go.

By now, you would think Derrick Brooks would be better at saying goodbye.

Over the past four years, the Bucs linebacker has held the door for John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Booger McFarland and Shelton Quarles.

Each time a teammate departs, he seems to take piece of Brooks with him.

But there's no way Brooks could've been prepared for what happened when he went to his car late Thursday night to unpack his things and haul them into the Celebration Hotel for the start of training camp.

That's when he saw defensive end Simeon Rice leaving, and just like that, their two careers happened to pass in the night.

''I was getting my bags to check in because I didn't get them earlier," Brooks said. "So I just happened to be getting my bags coming in, and I guess (Rice) had just gotten through with their meeting and he came up to me and told me what had just happened.

"At the time I was shocked at the news. Obviously, I was very disappointed. ... There's no need to be real critical. There's enough of that already. That's not going to bring Simeon back."

Rice, 33, was released Thursday after the team said he failed a physical and refused to take a pay cut. He was scheduled to earn $7.25-million and is still about three to four weeks from fully recovering from shoulder surgery.

For Brooks and many teammates, it was the manner in which Rice was unceremoniously booted out of camp that made things worse.

For a few hours Thursday, he was laughing with teammates, riding on a bus to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex and preparing to spend his 12th season in the NFL in Tampa Bay.

Then just as quickly, he was gone.

"The little bit I know, I wish it would've been handled a little better," Brooks said.

That was the sentiment echoed by most of the veterans, who couldn't help but be reminded of their own NFL mortality.

"We can't stay 26 forever, as much as we'd like to," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Even if we are trying our best to play up to that level, we can't stay young forever. We all know that. There is a shelf life in the NFL and you get the most you can out of every year. I'm still trying to do that.

"Like I said, it was a shock to everybody. Personal feelings aside, I love the guy. But you have to make a decision and whether it was the right one or the wrong one, we'll find out as the season goes on."

Nobody in the Bucs organization believes that replacing Rice will be easy. He ranks second among active players with 121 sacks and has eight double-digit sack seasons, including five in a row with the Bucs before a shoulder injury cut his season short after eight games last year.

Rice's departure puts even more pressure on rookie defensive end Gaines Adams, the first-round pick from Clemson who signed a six-year, $46-million deal Thursday. Adams took second-team reps at Rice's spot Friday behind Broncos free agent Patrick Chukwurah.

"I have no control over that," Adams said of the rising expectations. "I'll just come in and do what Gaines knows how to do and that's play football.

''I can't say they made that move for me."

Brooks still has a few familiar faces in the huddle. Barber. Brian Kelly. Greg Spires. He said he tries not to focus on who is no longer playing with him.

"Every departure has been different. And I mean, that's unique in itself. You thought you've seen a lot in this game, and they show you something different every day. At the end of the day, Derrick Brooks knows his role. "

Besides, at 34, Brooks doesn't really have time to wonder how the Bucs will say goodbye to him.

"All I can do is worry about today," he said. "When I start thinking about what's in the end for me, I feel I'm trying to do God's job, and I'm not God."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.

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