Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Heart of Africa

Derrick Brooks and his ‘Brooks’ Bunch’ crew departs for Africa, where they will learn lessons about the continent and themselves

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Laura St. Fleur, who 'never watched football before meeting Derrick Brooks,' fills out paperwork on the eve of the takeoff flight for 'Africa 2000'

In Joseph Conrad's classic novel, Heart of Darkness, a journey into Africa reveals to the protagonist the hidden savagery in men's hearts.

On Saturday, Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks will begin his own trip to Africa, but this journey promises a revelation of a very different kind. To the 19 Boys & Girls Club members that will accompany him on this 'Africa 2000' trip, Brooks' heart shines brightly, like a beacon in their lives.

As it was for Conrad's Marlow, Brooks' journey promises to be a life-altering event for his 20 young friends. Each of the 20 'Brooks Bunch' members that will head to Africa on Saturday (click here to read their bios) has completed a long educational program of workshops, research, essay writing and discovery. Each dedicated him or herself to hard work, good grades and exemplary school behavior in order to earn a spot on the trip. Through previous 'Brooks Bunch' trips to Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Brooks has learned that these once-in-a-lifetime chances to visit far-away locales, particularly in the presence of a popular and caring NFL athlete, is a powerful motivator in these kids lives.

Buccaneer fans are familiar with Brooks' exploits on the field, where he has been the team's Most Valuable Player each of the past two years. At the same time, Brooks has emerged as one of the most valuable figures in the lives of dozens of inner-city children in the Tampa Bay area. There is no question that Brooks has had a profound influence on the children he has taken into his life.

"Derrick means so much to us," said Fulani Daniel, one of the Boys & Girls Club members headed to Africa. "For some of the kids, he's a father figure. He has done so much for this community and so much for the Buccaneers. Derrick is always participating in food drives and planning Christmas parties. The trip to Africa is something special. This wasn't for publicity. This was something special for all of us. It's an experience that I will always remember, and one that I'll have the opportunity to share with my children and grandchildren."

Now comes Africa 2000, an amazingly ambitious program that Brooks and the Buccaneers' community relations staff has been planning for the better part of a year. A 12-day tour of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Swaziland that includes a three-day safari, the journey will finally kick off on Saturday when the group takes off from Tampa International Airport at 6:30 a.m. Accompanying Brooks and his 19 young friends ill be Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy and his wife, Lauren, plus community relations representatives Stephanie Waller, Jenny Townley, Marcie Hall, Stephanie Maza, Leah Shepherd and Chris Erickson and a variety of chaperones. Though they've been earning their tickets to Africa since last October, the 'Brooks Bunch' kids can hardly believe the time has finally come.

"I would never have been able to do this without Derrick," said another traveler, Laura St. Fleur, from the Tampa Airport Marriott, where the group gathered to prepare for the flight to Africa. "It's amazing that he's paying for everything and making this possible. I'm so excited. I'm looking forward to seeing the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned."

This type of eye-opening excitement is exactly what Brooks is trying to bring to these kids' lives. "My goal is to give these kids the opportunity to experience life in another part of the world and see things they have never seen," he said. "I want to increase awareness and show them different things that exist outside of their neighborhoods. Brooks' Bunch trips are about achieving dreams through education and travel. I want each trip to have a lasting impression on these children."

There's little doubt that it will, as the group travels to such landmarks as Cape Point, the Indian Ocean, Table Mountain and Robben Island, the site of Mandela's imprisonment. Other activities will include a visit to a penguin colony, a trip to see Bushman paintings and a tour of an authentic gold mine, not to mention the trip-capping safari in a private camp.

If that sounds like a whirlwind tour, it probably is, but Brooks' Bunch is determined to take in as much of this unfamiliar land as possible, and they're eager to see the places they have been studying for months. There will be something new, something wonderful, for the kids to see every day, but there will also be something very familiar with them at all times: Derrick Brooks. One gets the distinct feeling that these young men and women are traveling thousands of miles just to stay close to their mentor.

"I thank Derrick just for being here," 15-year-old Michael Sails, one of the soon-to-be world travelers, told the Tampa Tribune. "It's not just the trip. I can go to Derrick with any problem and he helps me. It's not about the money. The gift, for me, is showing me how to be a better person in life."

That's what Brooks will help them find in Africa, not Conrad's darkness but the light of humanity in their hearts.

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