On Saturday night, a star-studded crowd gathered to honor one of the most iconic figures in Tampa Bay history.
The career of the man known, among other names, as "Bo Brooks," "The Godfather," and "Double Nickel" was celebrated by Tampa Bay Buccaneers past and present, as both current and former players and coaches flooded Raymond James Stadium to pay tribute to 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Brooks, the consummate team player during his 14 record-setting seasons with the Buccaneers, appreciated the event as, above all, a chance to reconnect with old friends and celebrate the good times from his NFL career.
"I'm blessed that the Glazer family has taken the time to recognize the accomplishments of our team, not just me," he said as the party was about to begin. "The turnout tonight is really beyond Derrick Brooks. It's everybody that's been involved with me my fourteen years and counting with the organization, so this is their way of saying thank you. I can't wait to stand before them and tell them how much they mean to me."
More than 300 guests helped commemorate Brooks' retirement at the site where he directed Buccaneer defenses and inspired fans for 11 of his 14 seasons. Former teammates such as Mike Alstott, Dexter Jackson, Brad Johnson, John Lynch, Anthony McFarland and Shelton Quarles were in attendance, reuniting many members from the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII championship team.
"Derrick was our engine," said Alstott. "Derrick was our leader of this football team. He's a big reason for what we did for so many years and had that great run. We just all love him for the way he's affected each and every one of us on the field and how he led this team and helped us win the Super Bowl."
Gene Deckerhoff, who has called the play-by-play on the Buccaneers Radio Network for 22 consecutive years, took the mic as the event emcee, providing colorful insight throughout the evening. Deckerhoff, who has also been the voice of Florida State University football and basketball since 1979 and is a twelve-time winner of the Florida Sportscaster of the Year award, described every game of Brooks' collegiate and professional career for eager Seminole and Buccaneer listeners.
Deckerhoff, like countless of Buccaneer fans all across the nation, watched as year after year Brooks impacted the franchise like perhaps no other player before or since. He retires as the team's all-time leader in games played, games started, tackles and Pro Bowl selections, all by a wide margin. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, when the Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl, and he never missed a game in his entire professional career.
"When Derrick Brooks came to Florida State, they said he was too small to play at the Division I college football level," said Deckerhoff. "When he was drafted with the twenty-eighth pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, everybody said he was too small to play linebacker in the National Football League. All he is is a winner. He wore number 55 proudly at Tampa Bay, he wore number 10 at Florida State, and he's going to be in the Hall of Fame in three years and two months from right now."
A compilation of personal video messages from distinguished athletes and celebrities were played throughout the party, offering both a heartfelt and entertaining illustrations of Brooks' widespread impact. Ronde Barber, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin, Vinny Lecavalier, Garth Brooks and Jerry Rice were just a handful of the more than 50 Brooks admirers who paid their respects on tape. Included were former coaches Bobby Bowden, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, whose comments drew smiles, laughs, and even a few joyful tears.
Former Buccaneer teammates weren't the only NFL icons on hand for Brooks' party. If, as Deckerhoff suggests and few would argue, Brooks is a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection after the five-year waiting from his last season is complete, he will join some of his fellow party-goers on Saturday night, including Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson and Deion Sanders. Sanders, in fact, was one of the many people who took to the podium to recount stories about Brooks' career, along with Alstott, Lynch, Quarles, former Buccaneers linebackers coach Joe Barry and longtime Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Buccaneers Co-Chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer, current Head Coach Raheem Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik were among the many entertained by the first-hand accounts of Brooks' exploits.
"We played as a team and he was the reason why we played as a team," said Alstott. "When you play as one, it doesn't matter what size you are, how big you are, how fast you are. It's the heart you have, and there's no question his heart was huge."
Master story-teller Kiffin, who commanded the podium as usual with tales of Brooks' greatness on and off the field, kept it short and sweet when drawing conclusions about the player with whom he held a deep connection for so many years.
"He was a great football player, a great person and a special guy," said Kiffin.
The man of the hour expressed his heartfelt thanks for all who played a role in his career, and joked that his "retirement" has felt like anything but a vacation.
"I'm always doing something, always trying to find creative ways to give back, but I can definitely tell you that my body definitely feels a little better that I don't have to get out on Sundays and bang it all around," said Brooks. "I'm just trying to do the best I can to give back to the Tampa community."
Whether with teammates, coaches, family or friends, there was no denying Brooks' impact.
For Bryan Glazer, number 55's ever-expanding influence could be summed up in a few, short words as he offered up a toast for the entire party:
"From Pensacola to Tallahassee to Tampa to Canton, Ohio: Cheers to Derrick Brooks."