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Brooks Bunch has been life-changing for hundreds of youth.
Published Aug. 1, 2014

Tyrone Keys knows he has a tough task, trying to convince a dozen kids in green football jerseys there are more important things in life than football. But the founder of All Sports Community Service knows how to get them to listen.

The former Bucs defensive lineman tells them about Derrick Brooks.

"This is Derrick as a seed," says Keys, showing the boys one of the old photographs lining a long hall at Blake High School. "This is some of his fruit."

There's LaBrawn Saffold, who took some of Brooks' lessons and became a motivational speaker.

There's Natasha Spencer, one of the first children Brooks helped get through college. She's Dr. Spencer now, completing a residency at a Pensacola hospital.

Down the street is Rosie Odom, whose time in the group called the Brooks Bunch taught her about public speaking - and helped her land a job as a Head Start teacher at Just Elementary School.

Brooks has spent two decades using football as a starting point to help his community, from Christmas presents and scholarships to trips to South Africa. The hundreds of children he helped are scattered across Tampa Bay and beyond. Some are even living Brooks' advice, nourishing fruit of their own.

"I think of them every day," Brooks said, "because I'm proud of every story."

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After both her parents died when she was young, April Glenn wasn't sure if she would ever make it to college.

And then she started getting involved with a group called the Brooks Bunch.

The program's roots stretch back to Brooks' 1995 rookie year with the Bucs, when the linebacker first became a weekly volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club in Belmont Heights. He played games, bought Christmas presents and gave out Bucs tickets.

"As I got to know him, he had all these things he wanted to do for the kids," said Ricky Gallon, who has been working with Brooks through the Boys & Girls Clubs since 1995.

One day when Brooks was talking about being tired after flying home from a road game, he saw blank stares. Some of the kids didn't understand; they had never been on a plane before.

So Brooks decided to change that. He asked students to research topics and present their work to a small panel. Brooks took the best ones to museums in Washington, to jail cells on Alcatraz, to a Broadway show, and on African safaris.

"Once they learned something and we feel like they really applied themselves, he'd take them to see what it was in person," said Stephanie Allred, the Bucs' former community relations director.

Brooks was involved in every detail, from making sure children had the right vaccines to picking which of the matching jackets they would wear that morning. He sat in different parts of the bus each time to talk to every child, and he read all of their journal entries.

"We didn't feel the intimidation of his celebrity," said Aisheeda Benjamin, who went on a college tour in 2003 and now teaches second grade in Tampa. "He made sure we didn't feel that."

The group's alumni call the trips life-changing. If children from a graffiti-stained neighborhood in Tampa can fly all the way to Africa, what else can they do?

"With the Brooks Bunch, I was able to see there's a whole world out there," said Glenn, who went on three trips, including one to Africa. "You can do whatever you want."

Now in her second year as an emergency medicine physician in Bethlehem, Pa., Glenn recently approached her program's directors with an idea - a professional trip across the world, to give medical care in a country that needs it.

Her experiences in South Africa helped get her through college. It's her turn to give back.

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Long before Brooks won the 2000 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his philanthropy, he was volunteering with drug prevention groups as a child. He ran errands for the elderly in his childhood home of Pensacola, and he watched his grandmother invite strangers off the streets home for dinner.

"She never saw anyone as a stranger," Brooks said.

His family also stressed education, so Brooks made sure his charity work did, too.

Brooks brought in counselors to ramp up job readiness programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs, so experts could work individually with children to tell them what classes to take for their career goals. Then the counselors showed them how to fill out financial aid paperwork, line by line.

Brooks' donations topped $1 million, and his presence got families involved, so the life lessons weren't erased when children returned to their often troubled homes.

"That's the whole message and the magic of it," Gallon said. "What he's done, it's going to keep coming back on and on."

Tiffany Hughes wants to make sure of that.

More than the experiences of visiting Nelson Mandela's prison or seeing zebras in the wild, Hughes thinks about the broader message of the Brooks Bunch. Brooks threw her a rope to help her see the world, and now she wants to throw it back to someone else.

Hughes works as a student services coordinator at Clemson, where she's pursuing her master's degree in education counseling with plans to keep working with kids.

Maybe it's in student affairs. Maybe it's at a college campus. Maybe it's mentoring high school students - her own version of the Brooks Bunch.

"I might not have the star power of Derrick Brooks," Hughes said, "but I do what I can."

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Bonita Pulido sits at her desk at the office complex in Carrollwood, with a clock on the wall ticking down the seconds to Brooks' Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony Saturday night.

Brooks has been retired for five years, but he and Derrick Brooks Charities still try to squeeze productivity out of every moment.

"He expects as much from us as he puts in," said Pulido, the charity's executive director. "The guy's like the Energizer Bunny."

Brooks stays in touch with the children he has helped, and he remains heavily involved in his charity, which gave out almost $700,000 in 2012, according to its tax returns.

The beneficiaries range from black-on-black crime prevention and financial literacy classes to stipends for college students and a Lego robotics program. But they all come back to Brooks' background and the push for education.

"We know with education, there's power," Pulido said. "The real change that we can make in the lives of people in our community is to provide them with the keys to their future."

Brooks gave A.J. Ponds those keys a decade ago.

He was a shy eighth-grader then. He didn't even think applying for the Africa trip was worth it - he had no chance.

When Ponds gave the presentation his mom signed him up for, he shook the entire time. But Brooks believed in him; Ponds was headed to Africa.

"I did it," Ponds said. "I could not believe it."

When he went on the flight of his life, Ponds decided to stop holding himself back. He gave another presentation the next year to earn a trip out West. He was so confident for his final speech before the college tour that his friends made him speak last. No one wanted to follow him.

Fourteen years ago, Brooks threw Ponds a rope and the chance to seize an opportunity he never realized he deserved. Ponds knows he can't repay Brooks for everything he did for him, two of his younger brothers and children all over the state, but he's going to try.

As soon as he heard about Brooks' induction, Ponds started planning his own plane trip. So if Brooks gets nervous as he stares into the crowd in Canton, Ohio, Ponds will be there in the seats, ready to throw the rope right back.

"It's a little something to show, thank you, Derrick," Ponds said. "We do care, and we'll never forget."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

* * *

Hall of Fame induction ceremony

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Canton, Ohio

Who: Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams

TV: ESPN2 and NFL Network