Derrick Brooks: Inside the Legacy of 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee

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Derrick Brooks: Inside the Legacy of 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

This Sunday, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, culminating a professional journey that began on draft day in 1995.

Along the way, Brooks evolved into one of the finest defensive players in the history of the league and led by example—both on and off the field. 

This past week, I had the opportunity to speak with Brooks, and we discussed his career from start to finish. It provided a unique look inside the mind of a champion and Hall of Famer.

This is the story of Brooks' legacy, and how he achieved football immortality.

 

Draft Day and the 1995 Season

With the 28th overall pick of the 1995 NFL draft, the Buccaneers selected Brooks, a linebacker out of Florida State.

At the time, the Buccaneers were coming off 13 consecutive losing seasons and were the laughingstock of the NFL, but the team's longstanding futility was irrelevant to Brooks and his family. The local boy, born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, was staying home.

"When the Bucs called, we were excited that I was staying in the state of Florida. It didn't matter that the Bucs didn't have a winning history," Brooks told me. 

The head coach at the time was Sam Wyche, who presided over a disastrous four-year run that netted only 23 wins. 1995 would be his last season, and it was a trying one for Brooks.

Brooks said, "[My rookie season] was tough. To come from a winning program like Florida State and be exposed to losing, it wasn't good. But I kept my positive attitude and knew to hold true to the values I learned [at FSU]."

Fortunately for Brooks and Buccaneers fans, help was on the way, and it came in the form of Tony Dungy.

 

Changing the Culture

When Dungy was hired as Tampa Bay's head coach prior to the 1996 season, it set off a chain of events that would forever alter both the NFL landscape and Brooks' career.

Dungy installed his Cover 2 scheme—which became affectionately known as the Tampa 2—and Brooks thrived, sowing the seeds for a Hall of Fame career. Slowly, the culture was changing in Tampa Bay, and a key agent of the transformation was the leadership of the humble and hardworking Brooks.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Brooks qualified for his first Pro Bowl following the 1997 season, the first of his 11 trips to the NFL's all-star game. That year, the Buccaneers qualified for the postseason for the first time since the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.

As the years went on, Brooks helped Dungy transform the Buccaneers from the league's doormat into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. While Brooks was shining on game day, he was also relishing his role as a mentor and leader.

I asked Brooks how he was able to coax results out of his teammates, and he responded: "My role changed from player to leader. I wanted to exceed my talent with hard work. I got as much joy out of practicing as I did playing."

With the example set by Brooks, the Buccaneers began to flourish, and in 1999, the team lost a heartbreaker in the NFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams. That season was the first in which Brooks was named first-team All-Pro, an honor he would claim five times.

Following the 1999 season, it seemed only a matter of time before Brooks and the Buccaneers would break through and reach the Super Bowl.

But back-to-back losses in the wild-card round in 2000 and 2001 cost Dungy his job, and Brooks and the Buccaneers were shell-shocked.

It's funny how things work out, because that event laid the foundation for both the finest season in Buccaneers history—and Brooks' career.

 

2002: Super Bowl Glory

Jon Gruden was hired as the next coach of the Buccaneers, and he was tasked with moving the team past its playoff failures of the previous seasons.

Brooks told me, "We had to stay driven [after playoff losses]. Jon Gruden got us thinking about world championships and he brought accountability to the offensive side of the football. We started to believe [we could win a Super Bowl]."

2002 was Brooks' magnum opus, his personal iteration of Beethoven's ninth symphony. He accumulated 87 tackles, one sack, five interceptions—returning three of them for touchdowns—and returned a fumble for a touchdown. In all, Brooks scored four defensive touchdowns in keying one of the league's top-ranked units.

The haul was enough to win him Defensive Player of the Year honors, and when you consider the talent on that defense—including the likes of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a pair of future Hall of Famers in cornerback Ronde Barber and safety John Lynch and superb defensive end Simeon Rice—it's a titanic accomplishment to be singled out as the finest among them.

The Buccaneers would finally get over the hump, beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game to qualify for Super Bowl XXXVII, where they would play the Oakland Raiders for a chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

In the Super Bowl, Brooks was outstanding, authoring a performance worthy of an eternity in Canton. With the Buccaneers holding a 34-21 fourth-quarter lead, Brooks intercepted a Rich Gannon pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown, effectively clinching the game. Tampa Bay won its first Super Bowl, 48-21, and Brooks was a champion.

 

Hall of Fame Induction and Legacy

Brooks would play through the 2008 season, adding to his legendary resume. He would finish his career with 1,297 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 25 interceptions and seven defensive touchdowns. Brooks ended up tied with Hall of Famer Bobby Bell for the most interception returns for touchdowns by a linebacker with six.

This past February, he was elected into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, speaking to his greatness.

I asked Brooks how he felt upon receiving the call, and he said, "Overjoyed. The first thought that came to me, was wow, maybe now I can appreciate my career, because I never took time to dwell in the individual moment when I was playing, because it was all about our team. It was the first time that I took a moment to smell the roses of my career, and they smelled good."

That quote says it all: "It was all about our team." To the end, Brooks was a true leader and team player, and he exemplified those virtues off the field as well, being named the Walter Payton Man of the Year following the 2000 season.

Amy Sussman/Associated Press

Brooks is known in Tampa for his charitable endeavors, including the creation of the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School, which has been an overwhelming success in the community.

He was also recently named the NFL's appeals officer, meaning he'll hear pleas for on-field disciplinary measures.

For a man that has won accolades on the field and off it, a legacy can be a tricky proposition. Brooks told me how he'd like to be remembered: "As a man of God who played the game with a high level of integrity... The NFL was better because Derrick Brooks was a part of it, and I was a servant-leader. I gave as much as I asked, and I always went about it with a spirit of humility."

Integrity. A servant-leader. A spirit of humility. 

These are traits that encapsulate Brooks, both as a player and a man.

On Sunday, he will take his rightful place among football's immortals, ending a storied athletic career.

But for Brooks, his work—and charitable endeavors—have just begun. 

 

Nick Kostos is a featured NFL columnist for Bleacher Report and an executive producer at SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter here. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the author. 

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