Photo by Gary Rothstein© - Derrick Brooks has seen a lot to make him smile in Africa
(contributed by Charlie Nobles)
MOTSWARI GAME RESERVE, S. Africa - The first thing you notice is his smile. Derrick Brooks, the Tampa Bay Bucs' Pro Bowl linebacker, smiles easily and often, especially around the 20 deserving teenagers that he has brought on a chance-of-a-lifetime, 11-day tour of this country.
Yet Brooks - a man his Tampa Bay coach says is among the National Football League's three best defensive players -- has not put up more than $200,000 of his own money strictly for laughs. His main mission here is to develop leaders.
"I want them to feel hungry about wanting to make a difference - in whatever form that takes," he said of the aptly named Brooks' Bunch, youngsters mostly from the Tampa Bay area. "As I tell 'em all the time, this whole trip goes for nothing if you can't go back and influence some of your friends -- stand out amongst them as a leader."
For Brooks, this is community service the hands-on way, which is the only way he knows. There he is giving the kids a speech on maintaining a daily journal of what they're seeing here. Now he's got his arm around one of them, talking like a combination friend and father. Over here at lunch he's sitting with a half-dozen more, asking questions, sampling moods.
"I've got to see this trip through 20 sets of eyes," he said. "I try to target three or four of the kids each day and watch 'em, see what they're thinking, talk to them."
Brooks, 27, leads two interwoven lives. As a linebacker, he has been to three straight Pro Bowls, become the first Buc to make at least 180 tackles in three straight seasons and, according to his coach, is on a pace to become a Hall of Famer.
Off the field, he has been shaped in his zeal to help others by a giving grandmother in his hometown Pensacola, Fla., by a step-father who taught him to respect his teachers by "whipping" him in front of his fifth grade classmates and by FSU Coach Bobby Bowden, who would always include a meaningful biblical story in his speeches to the team.
Brooks is so intent about making a difference in others' lives that if he couldn't give of himself as well as his money, he likely would not have formed Brooks' Bunch five years ago.
"I just don't give and see you later," he said. "I like to get to know my kids on a first name basis. I like the relationship and I want to see 'em grow. Each kid in this program has a personal relationship with me. And one thing you'll find is the things I'm doing are being done with or without a (television) camera."
Laura St. Fleur, a 15-year-old from Apopka High, calls Brooks "an angel sent from above."
Nick Johnson, a 14-year-old from Tampa King High, considers him "my idol - because he's a famous athlete, but he's still willing to give so much of himself."
Added Otis Cooper, 14, of Tampa's Harvest Christian Academy, "He's definitely special, because not many celebrities are willing to go on a trip like this with kids."
Mike Sails, 15, of Tampa Blake High, presented Brooks with a plaque on behalf of the 20 young scholars at a restaurant in Cape Town. Brooks was touched.
"They can be creative in their ways of saying thank you," he said. "The ultimate form of thank you is when someone changes. Let me see a different person than the person I saw yesterday."
Tony Dungy, who is on this trip with his wife Lauren, said he recognized early-on after becoming the Bucs' head coach in 1996 just how special Brooks is. For one thing, he didn't see much of him in the off-season. Brooks was at Florida State pursuing a masters degree in business communications, which he received last year.
For another, Dungy saw a Pro Bowl talent with a penchant toward helping others.
"I think he realizes that the place he's been put in life is not all because of hard work," Dungy said. "Sure a lot of it is. He's worked very, very hard to be where he is. But he's had some advantages, like being able to go to FSU. So he understands what life in Pensacola is like for a lot of his buddies. He wants to provide a little bit more to people than maybe what he received. It all comes from not feeling that he's done everything himself."
Brooks said when he arrived in Tampa in 1995 as the 28th pick in the first round, he knew he wanted to connect with disadvantaged kids. He just didn't know which ones. Then one day he dropped by Tampa's Ponce de Leon Boys & Girls Club. That started it.
"Pretty soon he was sitting down with the kids and talking to them," said Bobby Wilds, assistant to the president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. "Then he started buying them some sneakers."
That led to him sponsoring a Thanksgiving dinner, giving Christmas presents and ultimately to establishing Brooks' Bunch, by buying 24 tickets to every Bucs' home game.
The annual trips started in '97, first to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then Atlanta and then Washington, D.C., before this extravaganza.
"The thing is, the kids know he cares, because he demonstrates it by being there for them," said Ricky Gallon, a 6-foot-11 former University of Louisville basketball player who now runs the Ponce de Leon Club. "When he gives of his time, you can't put a price on that. He takes them places where African Americans have been successful, so as to show them they can go forward, too."
Growing up in Pensacola, Brooks was struck by the giving nature of his grandmother, Martha Brooks.
"She always looked out for other people, not more or less with money but with her time and her food," he said. "She'd always find an extra plate for someone that didn't get a meal. She gave me a solid foundation on how to treat people."
So in a different way did his step-father, A.J. Mitchell. Dissatisfied with the clowning around that Derrick was doing in the fifth grade, Mitchell warned him that it better stop or else.
"I thought he was bluffing," Brooks said, a smile creasing his face. "But sure enough he showed up one day right in the middle of me class clowning and he took off his belt and whipped me right in front of my classmates."
Brooks also was unceremoniously removed from his football team, which hurt him even deeper. "I think the reality set in that I better treat people better or I'm not going to be able to play sports. He probably changed who I am."
Arriving at Florida State as the celebrated high school Defensive Player of the Year, Brooks quickly began to relate to Bowden, the veteran head coach.
"The guys there, we weren't the best Christians, but he planted seeds," Brooks said. "He would start his game speeches or recap the week with a bible story. Some guys weren't affected. I was."
Brooks capped his college career by making several All-America teams, yet heading into the NFL draft, some teams felt he was too small at 223 to be a pro linebacker. They wanted to consider him as a strong safety, his high school position.
"I took it personal," Brooks said. "I didn't work out for any team that thought of me as a safety. Maybe it was a big gamble at the time, but that was a risk I was willing to take. I asked the Lord to show everybody at every level what you want me to be. I made a stand to stay as a linebacker."
To say that has worked out well is gross understatement. In fact Dungy said if Brooks plays five more pro seasons anywhere close to the level of his first five, he should qualify for the Hall of Fame. The coach compares him to Hall of Famer Jack Ham, whom he coached in Pittsburgh, and the deceased Derrick Thomas, whom he coached in Kansas City.
"I'd put Derrick Brooks right in there with those guys - as far as the impact he has on the game," Dungy said. "I see him right now as one of the three best defensive players in the league."
Brooks didn't plan to do much conditioning on this trip, because he thought he would just relax, but he has mixed in some weight-training and jogging. The Bucs' training camp commences July 23.
"When this trip is over," he said, "it's time to go to work. And I don't want to lose a step."