Even the Man of the Year trophies themselves, won this season by Derrick Brooks and Chicago's Jim Flanigan, reflect the immense history of the award
That's the taste in Derrick Brooks' mouth upon learning that he and Chicago Bears' defensive tackle Jim Flanigan have been named co-winners of this year's Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. Earning this honor has been a goal of Brooks' since he joined the league in 1995, a lofty aspiration considering the very exclusive group of men who have attained it before him.
After all, this extremely prestigious honor was re-named last year for Payton, the man they called 'Sweetness'. It is designed to recognize not only a player's gridiron excellence but also his off-the-field community service; before his untimely death late in 1999, Payton was one of the best examples in league history of this admirable dichotomy.
"That the award is named after Walton Payton makes it always something special," said Brooks, who ranks it alongside his Sportsman of the Year Award from The Sporting News as two of his greatest achievements. "I have a lot of respect for Walter Payton and what he did for the game on the field and the integrity that he had off the field. To win this award with his name on it is also special."
Payton was also a winner (1977), joining a list that reads like a walk through NFL lore. Among the all-time football greats that Brooks joins in this honor are Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Junior Seau, Darrell Green, Cris Carter, John Elway, Derrick Thomas, Anthony Munoz, Mike Singletary, Steve Largent, Dwight Stephenson, Lynn Swann … the list goes on and on.
It began in 1970 with the selection of Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas, one of 12 Hall of Famers on the list. Did we mention Franco Harris? Joe Greene? George Blanda?
Brooks is the first Buccaneer ever to make that list, and he is thrilled and validated by the honor.
"This award goes to people that make a difference in people's lives," he said. "I think that's why this has always been a goal of mine, because the guys that win this award are difference-makers off the field. That's kind of the way I think I am. Whether it's in the classroom or in community service, I want to show a different side, because I think there's more to me than what you see on the field."
Make no mistake: only outstanding on-the-field contributors win this award, and Derrick's ascension into the league's elite level of players made him a very attractive candidate. But the award truly celebrates what goes on outside the lines, in the players' communities. Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy gladly reaps the benefits of having this Pro Bowl force on his roster, but knows that Brooks might be even more important in the Bay area society.
"I think this award is being given to Derrick more for what he's doing off the field than for the Pro Bowls and everything else," said Dungy. "He's just been wonderful in our community ever since I've been here. He's definitely made Tampa a better place to live and he's impacted a lot of young people's live. I think it's very, very appropriate that it's 'man' of the year."
Brooks and Flanigan are the first pair of NFL stars to finish in a dead tie in the voting for NFL Man of the Year, and it was deemed more appropriate to honor both than to try and break the tie. The breadth of Brooks' community work might be more familiar to Tampa Bay fans, but it certainly doesn't hurt to summarize them once again.
He is currently in his fifth year sponsoring Brooks' Bunch, a group of inner city kids from Tampa and Orlando Boys and Girls Clubs. Brooks has created many different programs to give Brooks' Bunch children opportunities they would otherwise not have. He purchases tickets for 24 Boys and Girls Club members to attend every Buccaneers home game, gives club members new shoes at Christmas, and provides Thanksgiving food baskets to the families whose kids attend the clubs.
Brooks has become an active and frequent presence in the lives of these children, spending a great deal of his free time playing games, tutoring, and mentoring the kids who participate in Brooks' Bunch. His visits are usually unannounced; he simply stops by to play a game of basketball, help with homework assignments, or just to talk. Club members see Brooks as a father figure and a role model. The bonds he has formed with them have helped many improve their grades and get through tough times at home.
"The time that I spend with the kids far exceeds the dollar amount that you could spend on the kids," said Brooks. "There's nothing wrong with spending money or setting up a foundation. Some guys may not have the time so they donate checks, and there's a place for that. But I figure as long as I have time to invest, I'm going to do it. I feel like that's an investment that I can't lose. You're always going to get a positive return any time you invest time in another person's life."
This past summer, he took 20 Brooks' Bunch members on a 12-day educational trip to Africa. It was the fourth in a remarkable series of field trips designed to shape these young men and women into future leaders. Brooks' Bunch has also visited St. Petersburg, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., all through Brooks' generosity and willingness to invest his time.
"It's all about them, believe me," said Brooks of the kids he has influenced. "Yes, it was a goal of mine to be in the elite category of these guys – Man of the Year makes a difference in people's lives – but at the same time, if it weren't for the kids and the changes in their lives, I wouldn't be in this position. This award is definitely shared with them, if not totally theirs. I think it's something that they can be proud of. Derrick Brooks won Man of the Year because I was part of his Brooks Bunch. This award is all about the kids."
Dungy went on last summer's trip to Africa and witnessed first-hand Brooks' commitment to making a difference.
"Derrick has just done some fantastic things in our community," said Dungy. "I happened to be personally involved with him on the trip to Africa and I saw what went into that, but that's just a small, small portion of what he does. I think he's got a tremendous heart for the area and I think it's very well-deserved."
In addition, Brooks has continued to take his game to the pinnacle of his profession. Regarded as one of the game's finest outside linebackers, he makes plays from sideline to sideline with his uncommon speed and instincts. He has finished in the top five in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting for two years running and is a two-time team MVP.
Brooks was also named the Defensive Player of the Month for November 2000. In addition to his team MVP honors, he was voted to the last four Pro Bowls. In 1999 and 2000, he earned first-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press and became the first Buccaneers player to post three consecutive 180-plus tackle seasons.
There are still greater accomplishments for Brooks to pursue on the football field, including the Super Bowl trophy that has so far eluded the Buccaneers. But there is no higher award presented by the NFL for combined on and off-the-field impact.
That won't stop Brooks, who will continue to expand his community involvement as long as it is possible.
"The Brooks' Bunch, man, we're going to keep rolling," he said. "Not only the educational trips – we're going to establish more outreach programs. The kids are getting older now and it's time to spice it up and provide new challenges for them. We're just trying to be innovative and ask the Lord for guidance in whatever direction the Brooks Bunch should go in. But this is by no means the top of the mountain. We're still climbing.
"There are still lives out there that need to be changed."