Walter Payton played his entire 13-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears. One of the league's all-time greats, he is remembered and celebrated by fans everywhere, but he belongs to Chicago and Chicago belongs to him.
Payton is Chicago. Cal Ripken is Baltimore. Mario Lemieux is Pittsburgh.
Derrick Brooks, the 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker who is sure to join Payton in the Hall of Fame in a few short years, played his entire 14-year career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Thursday, he held a press conference at One Buccaneer Place to close that chapter of his life, officially announcing his retirement from the NFL.
While introducing Brooks to the crowded studio, Buccaneers Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer compared the former Buccaneer great to Payton, Ripken and Lemieux. Brooks, said Glazer, had accomplished what few athletes in any sport do, forming that rare and perpetual connection to a franchise and a town and a fan base.
"From the 1995 opening-day victory over Philadelphia to a Super Bowl Championship, it was quite a ride," said Glazer. "In the modern era, it's all too rare for one athlete to wear one uniform for his entire career. Derrick did just that. Those athletes that played for one team are synonymous with the cities they played in. Derrick Brooks is a name that is synonymous with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay area. We've been lucky have him as our pride and joy since the day we first met."
Glazer's family purchased the Buccaneers in 1995, the same year that Brooks was drafted by the team in the first round. Glazer even dug up an old datebook in which he had recorded an appointment to join Brooks at the rookie's first-ever community appearance in the Bay area. Over the next 14 years, Glazer had a front-row seat for a career that reached every height and helped redefine the way the linebacker position was played.
Along the way, there were hundreds of unforgettable moments. But perhaps the most indelible image of Brooks' sublime NFL career is that of his face, seen over Jon Gruden's shoulder as the two embrace in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXXVII. The face is clinched, sobbing. Brooks is weeping with joy because the job is finally done…the most difficult and most rewarding work of his career, finally complete.
That was a moment as rare as the tears it inspired, because it seemed like the work was never done for Derrick Brooks. In fact, it still seems like that to this day.
Brooks announced his retirement from the NFL on Thursday, stepping away from a job he performed so well and so tirelessly that he will surely end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the best players of his generation and one of the most accomplished linebackers in the history of the NFL, Brooks walks away having conquered virtually every challenge professional football can present to a player.
As for the community-building work that Brooks began as a Buccaneer, to which he devoted himself as completely as he did to the game of football…that will go on. Brooks has retired only in the sense of his playing career; he will remain a very vital part of the Bay area community. In that regard, he very much resembles the former Buccaneer who is perhaps his only challenger for the title of best player in franchise history: Lee Roy Selmon.
"The headlines will read a professional football player retired today," said former NFL star receiver and current NFL Network analyst Sterling Sharpe when he heard the news. "I say a professional man retired today that used to play football."
Brooks accomplishments and honors as an NFL player would seem to make that Hall of Fame decision in a few years a simple one for the voters. He entered the league in 1995 and proceeded to play every single game – and very nearly every snap – for the next 14 years. That was 224 games in all; excluding kickers and punters (and George Blanda, who was primarily a kicker his last nine seasons), only 40 players in league history have appeared in more games than Brooks. Those 224 games played in a row tie for the second most in NFL history for a defensive player.
He also started 221 games in his career, sitting out the first play three times during his rookie season when the opponent started in a three-wide formation and Brooks was not yet part of the nickel package. It didn't take long for the Bucs' coaching staff to realize their young roving assassin should never leave the field. He started every game from 1996 on. Both his starts and games totals are franchise records. Brooks obviously had a burning need to be on the field, often spending an entire game week overcoming an injury in order to be available on game day.
"To be successful, the first thing to do is fall in love with your work," said Shelton Quarles, Brooks' teammate from 1997-2006. "That is one thing that made him who he is. He inspired others to get the best out of themselves and enjoy that process. He was the ultimate pro and a certain future Hall of Famer."
But Brooks wasn't just durable. He produced. Season after season, game after game, drive after drive. During his 14 years in uniform, Brooks always gave the Buccaneers' defense what it needed.
Statistically, that added up to 2,198 tackles, and of course tackling is the number-one job for a linebacker. He had 80 tackles as a rookie in 1995 and then never fell below triple digits again. He had at least 150 stops every year from 1997 through 2006. He piled up the tackles so relentlessly that his final total is not just the franchise record, it's more than 1,000 better than the man in second place, the fantastic-in-his-own-right Ronde Barber.
Tackles are not official NFL statistics, and they've only been compiled with any regularity since 1994. As such, they must be taken with a grain of salt. But when the numbers become as enormous as those put up by Brooks, there's obviously real weight to them. Of all the players in the NFL since 1994, only three have been credited with more tackles than Brooks: Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and Zach Thomas. Note that Brooks is the only outside linebacker in that bunch.
Brooks' former running mate, Hardy Nickerson, is seventh on the same list. In fact, Nickerson was in the habit of leading the team in tackles from his middle linebacker spot until Brooks came along. Statistics didn't really matter to either of them (they did have a friendly tackle rivalry at the time) unless they contributed to wins, and Nickerson called it an honor to play alongside Brooks.
"He was one of the most intense players that I have ever played with," said Nickerson, known to be quite intense himself. "He was a fierce competitor and is one of the greatest linebackers of the game. He worked hard every day always trying to continue to elevate his game and to elevate the entire Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization. Derrick was one of the most dedicated individuals, to both his team and his community."
Sometimes the Bucs' defense needed more than a dozen tackles from Brooks to get the job done. No problem. Beyond the routine stops, Brooks also turned in 25 interceptions, 13.5 sacks, 135 passes defensed and 24 forced fumbles during his career. Always more of a coverage 'backer than a blitzer, he is fifth in team history in interceptions. No other Buccaneer linebacker has ever had more than 10 career interceptions.
Brooks' larcenous tendencies in pass defense came to a head during 1999-2002 seasons. During those four years alone, he picked off 13 passes and broke up 57. Many of the picks looked the same on game film – he would read a receiver's route somewhere in his zone, anticipate the throw and cut in front of the target to pick it off on the dead run. That perfectly described his 44-yard Super Bowl XXXVII-clinching interception return for a touchdown on January 26, 2003, the one not long before his embrace with Gruden. Brooks was able to make such plays because he prepared tirelessly in the film room.
"He ascended to greatness because he simply outworked his competition," said John Lynch, another potential Hall of Famer from Tampa Bay's legendary defense. "Some of my fondest memories of my playing career were working with Derrick on the field. We had a non-verbal communication, where I knew where he was going to be and he knew where I was going to be at all times. It was a beautiful thing! He will go down as one of the all-time greats."
In 2002, Brooks intercepted five passes, scored on three interceptions and added a touchdown on a fumble recovery. He was the first linebacker in league history to score on three INT returns in a single season. On one, in a win over St. Louis in September, he had briefly come out of a five-point game in the fourth quarter to rest a balky hamstring. When Quarles also got hurt and had to come out of the game, Brooks put himself back in – without first checking with the coaches – and within a matter of moments was running with the football in the opposite direction Kurt Warner intended. Brooks scored the game-clinching touchdown with 59 seconds left and simply continued sprinting into the tunnel and on to the Bucs' locker room.
His teammates could only marvel that #55 had done it again. Just when he was needed the most.
"[He was] the best that ever did it!" said Warren Sapp, who called Brooks the Bucs' traffic cop. "And we were so lucky that he was one of us. Derrick was simply the best player I ever played with or against."
Brooks would win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award at the end of that season, pairing it with the Lombardi Trophy. He is one of only four players in NFL history to scale both of those mountains and also be selected to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. The list has a very Cantonesque flavor to it: Brooks, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.
"Derrick was and is a true warrior on and off the field," said Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, another of this generation's best defensive players. "He was the ultimate warrior and he showed every day that it it's not just talent or skill that gives you the edge, it is your will and the ability to put your team ahead of yourself. To me Derrick Brooks defines what a professional football player should be. It was a true pleasure to watch him play and to battle him on the field."
Mike Alstott, another all-time Buccaneer, retired a few years back and took with him some pretty gaudy statistics as well. Alstott and Brooks are the most frequent Pro Bowl picks on offense and defense, respectively, in team history. But Alstott said the numbers and honors meant little to him when compared to the hardest thing to leave behind: The relationships.
Both players excelled in amassing those, as well. As word of Brooks' retirement circulated on Wednesday – he first made the news known on his website, DerrickBrooks.tv – reactions from his former teammates and competitors rolled in. Very few of Brooks' contemporaries focused on his playing abilities long before commenting on the quality of the man himself.
"He was a natural leader on the field and the general in the locker room," said Alstott. Through his actions, he gained the upmost respect of his teammates as well as his opponents. I consider Derrick a great friend and look forward to working with him off the field for many years to come. The Tampa Bay community is a better place to live because of Derrick and his work though Derrick Brooks Charities. Just because his football career is over, I know that his heart and passion for this community will not end. It was an honor to have played with Derrick and I wish him the best of luck as he moves on to the next chapter of his life.
Of course, Brooks has already moved on to that next chapter…or rather, he has shifted even more of his time and attention to an aspect of his career that always overlapped with football. Brooks always dreamed big when it came to his community work, seeking to change young lives over the long haul. His charitable programs tended towards ongoing help for students who were willing to strive to better their lives, and Brooks rewarded them with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Who can forget his amazing Brooks' Bunch trips, which in its most ambitious year took a group of students to Africa?
"Most impressive and important to me is, as great as he was on the field, Derrick is even greater as a man off of the field," said Lynch. "I am proud to call him one of my closest friends and excited for what is in store for him and his family in the coming years."
The Bay area community should be excited, as well. Brooks is all about affecting change, whether it be within a football organization that had forgotten how to win or within a community that needs help getting proper education for all of its children. Even before his playing career was over, Brooks helped found the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School, which is now thriving in its fifth year.
Brooks was part of the wave that transformed the Buccaneers into one of the NFL's elite teams in the mid-'90s, was, in fact, one of the most important pieces in that transformation. He wasn't merely a talented player but a leader of men. On Thursday, Brooks closed that chapter of his life, retiring from the game of football. But he remains a leader, and surely always will.
"From the moment he was drafted by the Bucs Brooks helped change the culture of that organization," said Curt Menefee, host of FOX NFL Sunday. "And it wasn't just because of stellar perennial Pro Bowl play on the field. Derrick Brooks helped Tampa Bay become a model franchise around the NFL in large part because he was truly a member of the Tampa community. He was a Hall of Famer with his Brooks' Bunch programs for kids, including the eye opening trips he took them on for educational purposes. Some day he'll be enshrined in Canton for his play, he already has a place of respect among those who followed Derrick Brooks the man, as much as the football player."