TAMPA — There’s Deion, of course. There’s Charlie Ward, the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner. There’s probably Jameis Winston, too, even with a smaller sample size.
But if you’re constructing the Mount Rushmore of Florida State University football, it wouldn’t be complete without Derrick Brooks.
“He’s up there with the greats,’’ former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. “He’s in that photograph. Charlie, Deion, he’s there. He had it all.
“Throw in the academics and community pride and I don’t know who meant more.”
Who meant more to FSU football? No one, said former Seminoles safety Devin Bush, who was Brooks’ roommate at FSU.
“Nobody came through Florida State with the résumé that Derrick had,” Bush said. “We became the best of friends. We did everything together. But truthfully, I just wanted to be part of his aura.’’
Brooks is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his voluminous accomplishments during a 14-season NFL career with the Bucs. But a large part of his identity was established in Tallahassee.
He was FSU’s leader during one of the most glorious eras in the program’s history — a 44-5-1 record, a national championship, four bowl victories and a 3-1-1 mark against the Florida Gators.
He arrived at FSU as a bigger safety, but became an undersized linebacker, then quickly made his mark as one of the nation’s best defensive players. He was a two-time first-team All-American and a three-time All-ACC performer. Additionally, he was a GTE Academic All-America choice and earned his bachelor’s degree in Business Communications, then received a master’s degree in the same subject.
His FSU football accomplishments can be clearly quantified — 274 career tackles, five interceptions, 8.5 sacks, 13 passes defended, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries — but his true impact was best seen far from the public eye by teammates and coaches.
“He was always first to show up at meetings and always the last one to leave,’’ former FSU linebacker coach Jim Gladden said. “When I’d tell them to get dressed for practice, Derrick would still be sitting there. When everyone was gone, he’d say, ‘Coach, what kind of tempo do you want me to set today?’ ”
“The best thing was his overall attitude toward what success should be,’’ Ward said. “There was nothing not to like about him — unless you were the opponent.’’
“When he goes back to FSU, everyone knows who he is,’’ said former FSU running back Warrick Dunn, a Brooks teammate in Tampa Bay for six seasons. “He’s recognizable. He could be the face of the school. He’s a guy FSU looks to as being a true ambassador of the program.’’
Because he seemed to be almost flawless, because he always considered the welfare of others, Brooks inherited a series of nicknames from his Seminole teammates.
Reverend Do Right.
“He had the most fire of almost anybody I ever played with, but it was almost always under control,’’ former FSU defensive end Derrick Alexander said. “He always knew how to seize the moment. To have all the successes he has had, you can’t help but respect the determination and dignity of the man.’’
“I know he has helped guys with finances,’’ former FSU running back William Floyd said. “I know he has helped guys with jobs and advice with marriages. What he did on the field and his play puts him up there, but he separates himself with all the other stuff he has done away from football. That’s what makes him one of the greatest in Florida State history.’’
Bowden had dozens of All-Americans at FSU. But he coached only one Derrick Brooks.
“If every player we got was like him, we wouldn’t have gray hair,’’ Bowden said. “He was kind of the perfect kid. He was an excellent student. Very responsible. Very accountable.
“He was just a leader of men. And on top of that, he was a great football player with one element that most of them didn’t have — speed. I’m mighty proud of what he has meant at FSU. … He’s the definition of the total package.’’
Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly contributed to this report.
We had something pretty special there, great players, great coaches. We won a lot of games and we won a national championship. The bonds I formed there will last me a lifetime. I have a lot of great feelings toward Florida State University. That will always be my school. — Derrick Brooks
♦ Sweet dreams
Derrick Brooks was pretty solid with his decision to attend Florida State University, but a home visit by Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden all but made it official.
As Bowden visited with the family, Brooks’ younger sister, Latoya, fell asleep on the coach’s lap. The mother got up to put Latoya in bed, but Bowden waved her off.
“Nah, let her lay right here until we’re done,’’ Bowden said. “This is home for Derrick.’’
And with that, Bowden secured one of the most accomplished players of his distinguished career.
“That sealed the deal for me,’’ Brooks said.
♦ Gator tale
For a while, before he signed with FSU, Brooks gave a long look to the Florida Gators.
Well, sort of.
Brooks said UF coach Steve Spurrier never did a home visit with him in Pensacola. “He was an offensive guy,’’ Brooks said. “Coach (Jim) Bates (defensive coordinator) came. That’s why Coach Bates and I are good friends today.’’
The official visit to Gainesville didn’t go well.
“The minute I walked in, (Spurrier) compared me to other guys from Pensacola who had gone to Florida and been in a little trouble,’’ Brooks said. “He said, ‘Hey, are you like those other Pensacola guys? I’m telling you right now, I’m kicking you off the team if you guys came here to fight.’
“I said, ‘Coach, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I know all you guys are good friends. I’m not going to tolerate fighting on my team, fighting fraternities.’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m not that kind of person.’ ”
When Brooks saw Bates later, he had one question: “How soon do I go home?’’
After his Gators were largely tormented by FSU’s defense, Spurrier later admitted to Brooks that he took an inappropriate approach.
“He said, ‘Man, I messed that one up with you, huh?’ ” Brooks said. “I just told him, ‘No, Coach, I was with FSU all the way.’ ”
♦ Maximum effort
Every former FSU player or coach has a memorable on-field story about Brooks, but former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden remembers a more obscure moment. To him, though, it provides the perfect window into Brooks.
“There were so many great plays, but the one that stands out was when we played Clemson (FSU won 57-0 in 1993),’’ Bowden said. “It’s later on in the game and we hadn’t been scored on. Clemson had fourth and less than one on our 1-yard line. They ran their tailback right off tackle and I saw the hole open.
“As he was about to cross that goal line, Derrick kind of filled that hole, out of nowhere, and knocked that kid back in the backfield. Derrick Brooks was always there.’’
♦ Mr. Touchdown
Five games into FSU’s 1993 national-championship season, its opponents had scored just two touchdowns.
Brooks had three.
“That’s D-Brooks right there,’’ said former Seminoles safety Devin Bush, who was Brooks’ roommate. “Always making something happen.’’
FSU opened with a 42-0 shutout of Kansas. In Week Two, during a 45-7 win against Duke, Brooks scored on a 32-yard interception return. (Brooks 7, Opponents 7).
In Week Three, Brooks capped a 57-0 rout of Clemson with an 83-yard fumble return (Brooks 14, Opponents 7).
Week Four saw Brooks scoring on a 49-yard interception return in a 33-7 victory against North Carolina (Brooks 21, Opponents 14).
Neither side scored in Week Five, when FSU beat Georgia Tech 51-0 (Brooks 21, Opponents 14).
In Week Six, when FSU downed Miami 28-10, the opponents finally took the lead for good in this game-within-a-game (Opponents 24, Brooks 21).
“He knew how to seize the moment,’’ former Seminoles defensive end Derrick Alexander said. “It seemed like every week he was taking it to the house.’
♦ Free Shoes University
The only blemish on Derrick Brooks’ time at FSU was when he participated in a free after-hours shopping spree, arranged by an unregistered agent, at the Foot Locker in Governor’s Square Mall. Players accepted approximately $6,000 in merchandise.
Brooks was the biggest name involved and he was suspended for the 1994 opener. On the banquet circuit, UF coach Steve Spurrier made it a punchline, saying that FSU actually stood for “Free Shoes University.’’
Brooks, though, has turned the episode into a lesson.
“Bad decision,’’ Brooks said. “It really was. It was lazy. I talk about it very openly. I tell kids who are doing this, ‘Guys, if you can go from a decision like this to being a trustee of this school, anything is possible.’ ”