Derrick Brooks: A ‘Hall of Famer’ in Football, Fatherhood and Philanthropy

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker and soon-to-be Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks reflects on his football career and upcoming enshrinement in Canton, Ohio on Aug. 2.

Bucs soon-to-be Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks talks about his upcoming enshrinement in Canton

When Derrick Brooks takes the stage to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame next week, it’ll be after his eldest son, Decalon, takes the podium to present him. The 16-year-old Gaither High School student was shocked when his father approached him, asking if he’d do the honors.

“I told him that since he’s my oldest son and he plays football, that I wanted him to take the first shot,” Brooks recalled Tuesday as he prepared for the big day.

He’d originally hoped he could have all four of his children present him, but that wasn’t part of the ceremony format. So he had to break the news to them and get his eldest on-board with the idea.

“My kids kind of had their own little ‘huddle up,’ if you want to call it that,” he laughed. It wasn’t until Decalon shyly revealed a smile that Brooks knew he’d be up for the challenge. “We really, really just got him comfortable with the idea.”

He has no idea how he’ll feel seeing his son walk up there.

“I don’t want to have any preconceived notions about how I’m going to feel because I don’t want to rob my son of those moments.”

It would be uncharacteristic of him to cry, at least not the way his former teammate and dear friend Warren Sapp did last year.

But for that special moment, one would hope that a man who always managed to keep it together — whether it be the highs of a Super Bowl victory or the lows of a pummeling defeat — could, just for a second, allow himself to feel the monstrosity of it all and let whatever emotions he has flow.

“Probably much of my speech will be from the heart because that’s who I am.”

The Father

In pictures, he looks very much like his dad. The same eye shape, the same nose, the same chiseled facial structure, although the younger Brooks still has some growing to do.

He’s still a skinny teenager, but through the countless hours of hard work his dad put into the weight room, he could one day blossom into the same type of player, possessing a rare breed of coverage skills so good that he could have shut down an entire span of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Last week, Brooks traveled to his alma mater, Florida State in Tallahassee, for Jimbo Fisher’s football camp. In a gray hall of fame polo and matching hat, he watched Decalon play from the sideline.

“He has an opportunity to do something that I didn’t, to go go Florida State Football Camp…to go out there and work on the same fields that I worked [on] when I was in college — breathe that air and share those moments with me that I’ve been through.”

He also got to experience the same joy his own stepfather, A.J. Mitchell, felt watching him play.

He’s quick to point out that he wants to merely be a dad here. There’s no coaching and there are no comparisons.

The two have distinctly different personalities.

“My son and I are totally opposites. [He’s] a lot more laid back and reserved than most, especially me. At his age, I was a little bit more, let’s say ‘talkative,’ if I can use that word, than what he is at this age.”

His son is his own person and his own player, something Brooks is proud of.

“I don’t want to make comparisons because that’s not fair. He’s participating in this game of football on his own merits because that’s what he wants to do and I want to support him as a father, not the type of father that’s out there comparing him to what I did. He has a different skill set, he’s playing the game at a different time and I just want him to max out on his own abilities.”

He just has one rule, though, the same one Mitchell passed along to him when he took up football growing up in Pensacola, and something he could possibly use when helping his son get ready for their big day — “Go 100-percent all the time and if you make a mistake, go full speed and have fun. If he does those two things, to be honest with you, I’m proud of him.”

The Football Star

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Derrick Brooks returns an interception for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII

It doesn’t feel like that long ago when  it was Brooks going full-speed on Sundays. And in many ways, he still looks the part.

You could probably spot him in a crowd by the thick slabs of muscles still protruding from the back of his shirt. Like a carpenter or a sculptor with a piece of art, every piece had been patiently carved and chiseled over time. Only Brooks’ workshop was a stuffy outdoor weight-room that felt like a sauna, particularly during the summer months at the old One Buc next to the airport.

When the others had gone inside, he was still pushing for more, with the hum of nearby planes taking off and landing and fumes filling the scorching summer air.

You don’t see lats or traps like that on ordinary people, nor do you ever see such cat-like instincts on the field. Like a lion just before a hunt, he’d follow his prey closely with his eyes. And when he sensed the ball was coming, he knew when to leap into the air and pounce.

He was always in ‘attack-mode.’

He had seven interceptions during that Super Bowl season in 2002, four of them pick-6s. Those impact plays would often be the difference-maker, picking up the slack for an offense that had long held the team back from advancing in the playoffs.

New head coach Jon Gruden, an offensive guru, came in and issued a surprising challenge to the defense before the season. Brooks was bound and determined to answer it.

“He challenged us to score touchdowns. That was the one element that was missing in our defense that was preventing us from being truly dominant in winning championships. We needed to score on defense, not just be satisfied with stopping a team or holding them to ‘x’ amount of points but step out in this area and become great.”

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Brooks said that just before the season, new head coach Jon Gruden issued a challenge to the defense to do more than just make key stops. He needed them to score touchdowns. Brooks did that four times that year.

“I was just doing the best I could to step up to his challenge of challenging our defense to score nine touchdowns, and when I got my hands on the ball, I was fortunate enough to turn them into scores.”

Of course, no play was more memorable than his pick-6 in Super Bowl XXXVII. Once Brooks got the ball in his hands, Gruden came racing down the sideline with him.

“The Super Bowl touchdown is special because very few people get the opportunity to play in that game alone. And yet, to have a turnover that affects the game the way my interception did…That play sealed that game for us, and the impact of that game on our Tampa Bay community, being ‘World Champions,’ that’s something that’s on all of our resumes here in the Bay area, that we call ourselves ‘champions.’”

And pretty soon, he’ll get to call himself a ‘Hall of Famer,’ sporting a golden jacket with a bust created in his own likeness. And just like the powerful frame that made him unstoppable, it will be carefully carved and chiseled as he joins the greatest to ever play the game.

The Philanthropist

While his list of on-the-field accomplishments can stand on its own –  a National Championship with Florida State in 1993, a Super Bowl ring, 11 Pro Bowls, nine All-Pro selections, an AP Defensive Player of the Year award he won during that Super Bowl season, the “Whizzer” White Man of the Year Award and the Bart Starr Award — there is much, much more to his legacy.

In fact, his work off the field, which was recognized in 2000 when he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, could stand on its own.

He has mentoring programs for young girls and boys emphasizing academics, personal development and self esteem. He has focused on violence specifically within the African American community, creating crime and gang prevention programs involving first-time juvenile offenders and law enforcement. There is behavior modification training, parental support groups and tutoring.

He has programs targeted towards bullying, teen summits for middle school and high school students, employability programs and prayers groups. Kids are even taken on field trips to museums, universities and sporting events. He’s even taken some of the children to Africa, and like all of his programs, everything is free of charge.

Through his numerous charitable acts, Derrick Brooks became one of the most celebrated athletes in Tampa Bay history
Through his numerous charitable causes, Derrick Brooks became one of the most celebrated athletes and philanthropists in Tampa Bay history

And then there’s Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School, a lifelong dream he fulfilled when the school opened its doors in 2007. It’s the first charter high school in Tampa, something he created in partnership with the DeBartolo family to provide advanced educational opportunities to high achievers.

He credits his mother, the late Geraldine Brooks-Mitchell, for instilling a giving spirit and placing such a high priority of academics.

“She really stressed to treat people how I wanted to be treated. She always wanted me to have an attitude of humility, no matter what I did in life, to [take] a humble approach.”

He also credits his grandmother Martha Brooks, who would always open her doors to others and offer a home-cooked meal.

“She never saw anyone as a stranger. She invited people in. If they needed a meal, then she would do the best she could to help out others.”

She’d ask young Derrick to help her with running errands for those who couldn’t do it for themselves.

“I guess in a small way, [those were] my humble beginnings to a bigger picture…trying to make life better for somebody else.”

A Lasting Legacy

And he’ll still be thinking of others on that stage in Canton, even when his dazzling highlight reel plays on the projector screen and the spotlight’s on him.

“I like to keep the same mindset of, that this is a speech that is going out to touch others…but I don’t want to put any added pressure on myself, to say that this is any more important than a one-on-one conversation with somebody’s life that [I’m] trying to change.”

He continued, “I just want to get up there, more so, and obviously thank people that were a big influence on my football career and my life, and at the same time, leave with a message of who Derrick Brooks is today and who Derrick Brooks wants to be moving forward.”

And no matter where he is today or tomorrow, no matter what role he plays, it’s fairly certain that people will be standing up to thank him too.

— Jenna Laine


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