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Derrick Brooks' Hall of Fame induction is about more than just football

Pensacola, Florida, is really more like Alabama, culturally speaking. "Country strong" exists in the people who grow up there. Generations of roots go deep with hard work, back-road churches, southern heat and the simple life. I guess when you learn of where Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Derrick Brooks was raised, the way he carried himself throughout his career shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

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Derrick Dewan Brooks was born on April 18, 1973. Brooks, who didn't meet his biological father until he was 16 years old, was raised by his mother Gerri, grandmother Martha, and stepfather A.J. Mitchell-who married Brooks' mother when Derrick was six years old. As told by Brooks himself in a tribute made by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, "Finish what you start" became the motto, rule, and end-all be-all for Derrick's family growing up.

"The first year that I went out to play football was actually the only time I quit something. I was seven years old, and I was there for about an hour and I saw guys hittin' each other, and I said, ‘Dad, I don't want to do this'. He simply said (to me), ‘Hey, you get one time to do this. I'm not going to force you to do anything, but the next time that you start something, you're going to finish'."

Whether it was in academics, jobs or even sports, A.J. and Gerri Mitchell made sure when one of their three children made a commitment, they saw it through. Sports were a privilege; Brooks had to earn the right to participate in athletics by keeping up with his studies. From the moment he started playing sports, his mother made sure he knew if he wasn't able to maintain an "A" in the classroom - which she knew he could do - sports would be the first privilege taken away.

"They [Brooks' parents] just simply explained to me, that no matter how successful I would be in life, if I didn't know how to treat people or respect the rules, that I was going to be a failure."

At Booker T. Washington High School, Brooks excelled both on and off the field. At the end of his high school career, he was named the USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year, a Parade All-American, and was rated the best defensive player in the country by Super Prep magazine. Off the field, Brooks learned the principle of putting others before yourself with the idea of charity - a principle Brooks would build upon as a player and as a person. His grandmother ran a makeshift soup kitchen out of her home where Derrick would help out during his childhood.

By 1991, Brooks had the grades and the talent to visit any university in the country, but ultimately decided to stay close to home, narrowing his choices to Florida, Auburn and Florida State.

"If I did not play a down of football, where would I go to school?"

Brooks' announcement of where he would attend college was held at his school football banquet. He had asked Florida State's Defensive Coordinator, Mickey Andrews, to attend, knowing in his heart that FSU would be his decision. But Andrews wondered if he should even show up - knowing he could get burned if Brooks decided to attend one of his rival schools. But Brooks' playful side showed again when he thought of a plan to make his future defensive coordinator sweat. After hearing Andrews' doubts, Brooks responded, "I'll tell you what coach, if you don't show up, I WON'T go to Florida State." But the trip proved to be worth it as Brooks finally put his recruitment circus to rest at the eruption of cheers when he announced he would be attending Florida State University - a school he chose for their academics as much as their football program.

Brooks started his career at FSU as a defensive back - more specifically a strong safety. Adjusting the college life was hard, but if you only watched Derrick on the field, you wouldn't have been able to tell; he became one of just two true freshman to earn a varsity letter in program history. During the following offseason, Brooks made the shift to outside linebacker. The transition was a smooth one and Brooks was able to make an immediate impact as a sophomore recording 98 tackles and earning First Team All-ACC.


The accolades gathered over Brooks' Seminole career were numerous. He finish as a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time finalist for the Vince Lombardi Award given to the nation's top lineman or linebacker, and a GTE Academic All-America who graduated five months early. All of this while being the defensive leader for FSU's first ever National Title in 1993.

"What happened to us? ... We are dying off in the streets and in jails"

But in a story told by ESPN's David Flemming back in 2003, there was a moment during Brooks' time at FSU that stood out above the rest, and it wasn't on the playing field.

During his junior season, Brooks' cousin was serving time at a prison work camp back in Pensacola. For some time, Brooks was reluctant to go visit him, despite his cousin's requests. But eventually Brooks caved and decided to take a couple of his teammates with him on the visit.

Flemming tells of how the ride to the prison was loud, filled with laughter and energy. But that attitude change when the three young men entered the prison walls for their visit.

"It hit us hard. It took our breath away. We couldn't help but see ourselves in those young black faces." - Omar Ellison, Brooks' teammate

As Flemming explains, the drive back to campus was polar opposite from the ride out. There was no music, no laughter, no talking at all. Silence dominated the ride until Brooks spoke up and said, "What happened to us? ... We are dying off in the streets and in jails, and the people we believe in to fix this - politicians, pastors, our fathers - are not doing anything."

Those words sparked conversation among the three. That conversation progressed until they all felt moved enough to pull off to the side of the road and make a promise to each other and to those in need that they would always "throw the rope back" to people the rest of society had given up on.

Entering the 1995 NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an active streak of 11 straight seasons with double-digit loses (the franchise had only recorded two winning seasons in their 20 years of existence). But it was the beginning of a new chapter for the Buccaneers as it would be the first season under the new ownership of the Glazer Family. The ink, quill and paper used to write that chapter were Warren Sapp, Tony Dungy and Derrick Brooks.


The Bucs had two picks in the first round of the 1995 draft. With their first, they chose a loud-mouthed, in-your-face, mean defensive tackle from the University of Miami. With their second, they chose a humble, head-down, effective linebacker out of FSU. Though these two picks were selections from rival schools, the players involved had established a bond long before - a bond that helped mold Brooks into the lead-by-example player he aspired to be.

Brotherhood was a concept Brooks grew up with; it was never about me, it was always about us

Sapp and Brooks knew each other from high school football. Though they never attended the same school, they often played in state and regional all-star games together. Their friendship continued through college as Sapp even stayed in Brooks' dorm room during their freshmen seasons when Miami traveled to play Florida State in Tallahassee. When Sapp was drafted, Brooks was one of the first to congratulate him; 16 picks later, Sapp would do the same. These two opposite personalities were brought together through their intense desire to be the best, and they continued to build upon that desire and each other as new teammates in Tampa.

"We've been together since we were on the Florida/Georgia team together as 17-year-old kids coming out of high school. Then playing each other in college... I go to Florida State, I stayed in his room the first year Miami and Florida State played because I was a redshirt. Me and him shared so many moments and we're going to keep sharing for the rest of our lives.... five-five and nine-nine go together forever, baby!" - Warren Sapp

Brotherhood was a concept Brooks grew up with; it was never about me, it was always about us. That value continued to thrive with the addition of Tony Dungy in 1996. The new Tampa coach made it clear to all of his men that football was important, but the impact they had on the community around them and to those who looked up to them would be more important than any game they would ever play. When it came to anointing a leader of Dungy's new culture in Tampa, there was no man more qualified for the job on and off the field than Derrick Brooks.

"As [Dungy] said many times before, and I repeat it, if our mission was when you came into the leadership for us to win Super Bowls and that's it, we all lose. I really thank you for challenging me to really take that message and change the community. And I continue to try and do that today."


It didn't take long for Brooks to establish himself as one of the top linebackers on the team and in the league. By the year 2000 (five years pro), Brooks was appearing in his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. He had recorded nearly 600 career tackles and led the Buccaneers to two straight playoff appearances including the NFC Championship game in 1999 - which they lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams.

His time as a champion of football would be coming soon, but people began to realize Derrick Brooks was a special kind of champion long before the NFL gave him a ring to symbolize it.

When Brooks came into the NFL, one of his first orders of business was to establish a way he could get involved in the Tampa Bay community. Coming from a Boys and Girls Club growing up, he made arrangements to send a group of kids from the Tampa Bay area Boys and Girls Clubs to each Bucs game. It started off in 1996 with the young star linebacker visiting the local clubs to encourage the kids to do well in school. But after a while, he realize he had the resources to do more than just weekly visits. Brooks started to put together educational trips for the kids as a means of rewarding them for good grades - he called it "The Brooks Bunch". These trips started out small and in-state, but as years passed and success grew, he took them to Atlanta to visit the Martin Luther King Center, then the next year to Washington, D.C., to study government.

"He's not one of these athletes who gives money and has cameras take his picture, and then you never see him again."

Brooks made it a priority to not only fund and allocate resources for these clubs and trips, but he made sure he was present at whatever event he was available for. Derrick was often the one leading the kids through places and excises, being very personable, getting to know ever child he could. Bertha Gary, director of Tampa's Ybor City Boys and Girls Club told Paul Attner of The Sporting News, "That's what really impresses me about Derrick. He is incredibly hands-on. He's not one of these athletes who gives money and has cameras take his picture, and then you never see him again. He is in the middle of everything. He doesn't dominate; he blends in. But he knows exactly what is happening."

Brooks has taken his Bunch all over the world. They've been to the city of New York, seen Oprah Winfey's studio in Chicago, visited the Golden Gate Bridge and Grand Canyon and even traveled to South Africa and Swaziland where they observed the prison where Nelson Mandela was held.


In an interview by Thomas George of the New York Times, Brooks told him that his charities are about expanding the kids' horizons: "I will not allow my group or anyone else to use the words ‘underprivileged kids' when talking about them. Sure, we've got students who come from homes with single parents, both parents, some being raised by their grandparents, and others, frankly, who are raising themselves. This group is about breaking down stereotypes. It's about educating themselves with these trips and then passing it on to their friends about the possibilities. It's a dynamic situation and I have earned their respect. Now my job is to live up to it."

Most fans simply admire who Derrick Brooks was on the football field - and for good reason. After all, he's being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But there's so much more that went into Derrick Brooks the human being than just the extra wind sprints, the concentrated work ethic and the desire to be the best at a game. "Finishing what you start", never forgetting to help your fellow man (or woman) and treating others like they're family, played as much of a part to who Derrick Brooks is, and this final football achievement he is about to obtain, than coaching or practicing could do on their own.

In 2000, Brooks was named the Walter Payton/NFL Man of the Year. In 2002, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, became the only linebacker in NFL history to return three interceptions for a touchdown in a single season, was selected to the Pro Bowl for the sixth straight time and hoisted the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy for the first time in Tampa. The following season, Brooks earned honors for the "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award and Bart Starr Man of the Year Award.

If you're keeping score at home that would make Derrick Brooks a one-time Player of the Year, a one-time Champion of the Year, and a three-time Man of the Year. A ratio I'm sure Brooks himself would be proud of.

"I hope I did my best to really make you celebrate… For those of you that looked at me as a leader, I hope I didn’t disappoint you. I tried to do it the right way, show up day in and day out… I’ve always said, and I’ll still say it before you guys, I’m the guy that’s going to grab the shovel and start digging. I’m not going to ask anyone else to dig."

This piece originally ran at Trevor Sikkema was kind enough to let us publish it as well. He can be found on Twitter as @TrevorSikkema.

Photo credit: Melina Vastola, Kirby Lee, Kim Klement, USA TODAY.