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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Gerri’s smiling down, never far from No. 55’s heart

— The party would have been louder. No doubt. And whether it would have been on the grounds of the Pro Football Hall of Fame or at the hotel or anywhere else, Geraldine Brooks-Mitchell, Derrick Brooks’ mother, would have been running things, celebrating, music blasting, grill going, laughter everywhere. Love, too.

“Heaven is having one big tailgate that Canton is missing,” Derrick Brooks said. “Because if she was here, trust me, all of Canton would know it.”

Geraldine, or simply Gerri, passed way in 2007, on her 52nd birthday, after a long fight with cancer.

Derrick Brooks insists that his mom will be smiling down tonight on his Hall of Fame enshrinement. The same with his grandmother, Martha Brooks, who passed in 1999, and his stepfather, Arthur James “A.J.” Mitchell, who died in 1996. So much of who Brooks is, what he became, goes back to them.

“I think it would be selfish if I had any regrets about my mom and my dad and my grandmother not being here,” Brooks said. “I understand it was God’s plan. Their spirit is here, strong. They never left me, and they never will leave me. I think about them. It all ends with a smile.”

So many people important to Derrick Brooks have converged on this Ohio city. They’re all a part of his journey — family, friends, teammates, coaches, people who have shaped his life and been touched by it. The journey began in Pensacola.

“I would say it probably started with my grandmother,” Brooks said. “She made sure if anybody came around, they were treated with a level of respect.”

Martha Brooks took care of people. If she saw someone, even a stranger, walking by her house and they looked even a little hungry, she’d send out one of her grandchildren with a plate of food.

“A hot meal does a soul good,” Martha would say.

So would her daughter, Geraldine. Derrick Brooks remembers sitting down for dinner some nights and not knowing all the people at the table. His mom would explain.

Oh, this is John. He cuts meat for the butcher. He lost his job and he’s going to be doing some yard work for us. But we’re feeding him first.

When Brooks first made his NFL money, he wanted to buy a house for his grandmother. Martha would tell him never you mind. Just grow up, be successful and be a good person.

“She was all about making sure I didn’t let anyone get in the way of my dreams,” Brooks said.

Brooks thought about his stepfather. A.J. Mitchell kept his family fed, driving a cab, doing odd jobs, even mechanic work on cars in the front yard, pull right on in. A.J. taught his children well. Once, he yanked the belt from his trousers and spanked Derrick — in the middle of the classroom at grade school. Derrick had been cutting up too much. A bright white light. The straight and narrow beckoned. Derrick Brooks never looked back.

A.J. taught his son others things.

“Finish,” Brooks said. “He gave me one time to quit football, when I first went out. I practiced one day, turned the pads in. He loved on me a little bit, but he told me, ‘This was the first and last time you’ll quit.’ He told me talent has nothing to do with effort. He told me it was about effort and finishing. And humility.”

And there was Geraldine.

“There are so many lessons with Mom,” Brooks said. “She taught me that academics and athletics are one. She taught me treat people how you want to be treated. And humility. Always humility.”

Brooks grinned.

“My mother was a jokester, a prankster. Very rarely were you around my mom and you didn’t have a smile on your face.”

Geraldine would lead tailgate caravans down from Pensacola, to Florida State games, later to Tampa and the Bucs. When she hit the parking lot, it stayed hit, with Geraldine in the middle in her No. 55 jersey, laughing, loving life. That was her. Have a beer, a good meal, play some dominoes. When she met you, you were her friend. She left you no choice.

Geraldine would organize Christmas giveaways in Pensacola, reaching out in the neighborhoods. She’d cook holiday meals, load up a van and deliver them. The message everyone took from her, even as she battled cancer, was that each day the Lord gave you was a good one.

“My mother, she’s a bigger celebrity than I am in my hometown,” Brooks said. “It’s just who she was. Just last year, going to a game, someone had my jersey on and stopped and told me, ‘Hey, Derrick, I just want to say I miss your mom.’ ”

They had to switch churches for her funeral because the first one couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to celebrate Geraldine.

“She touched a lot of people,” Brooks said.

So has her son.

He enters the Hall of Fame tonight.

Yes, the party could have been louder.

No matter.

It all ends with a smile.

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