TAMPA — Monte Kiffin used to joke about it.
The former defensive coordinator of the Buccaneers would generate laughs every time he reminded his players that the first rule of getting better is to show up.
Derrick Brooks didn't think it was funny.
For 14 NFL seasons, whether he was garbed in Creamsicle or pewter, Tampa Bay's iconic weakside linebacker showed up for every game and virtually every practice.
And by the time Brooks stopped running, he found himself at Canton's doorstep.
“Any player who re-invents a position belongs in the Hall of Fame,'' Bucs co-owner Joel Glazer said. “Derrick Brooks could be mayor of Tampa or governor of Florida — that's how much he has meant to this community and this state. In a game that is so physical and demanding, to play week in and week out speaks to his mental toughness.''
Brooks never missed a game in his professional career. Fourteen seasons, 224 regular-season games.
Do the math.
Before leaving the NFL stage in 2009, he closed with 208 consecutive starts.
From Tony Dungy's arrival through Jon Gruden's departure, Brooks started every game the Bucs played, including 11 postseason matchups.
And when Raheem Morris replaced Gruden, he regretfully followed orders and announced a franchise cornerstone had been released.
“He took kids to Africa, he built a school,'' Morris said. “He's special. You almost get choked up just talking about Derrick Brooks. This is a different guy than anybody we know, anybody you've ever met.''
Brooks made a difference in every football life he touched since coming out of Florida State as a 219-pound tweener. Scouts weren't sure whether he was a safety or a linebacker.
In the end, he was just a football player.
“The best defensive player I ever played with, including me,'' former roommate and fellow Hall of Famer Warren Sapp said. “He might not say much, but what he says you remember. He's always been the heart and soul of our team.''
When Brooks touched down in Tampa in 1995, the woeful Bucs represented an easy punchline for stand-up comedians. Tampa Bay hadn't posted a winning record since 1983 and Brooks' rookie year under Sam Wyche was disillusioning.
“It was how we lost that was tough,'' Brooks recalled nearly two decades later. “We were 5-2 that year, but the environment felt like we were in last place because we were never a team. We were just men working together. Some of the seams started to unravel and I saw the ugly side of the NFL. I saw guys literally say what they were playing for — Tuesdays, to get paid.''
Brooks kept looking to the scoreboard for his compensation.
“When I first met Derrick, what stood out to me more than anything was his integrity,'' said former Bucs tight end Jimmie Giles, a fellow member of the franchise's Ring of Honor. “It was his love for individuals around him. That Tampa 2 scheme helped, but Derrick could have stood out in any scheme.''
Brooks eventually replaced middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson as the voice of the team. He wanted to be the first player to greet arriving free agents and tell them about the Buccaneer Way.
“He was a leader, a guy who showed up to work every day,'' former Bucs safety Dwight Smith said. “Derrick walked the walk. As a young player, you looked at him and saw the way you should live your life. My hope is he gives himself to our youth and helps the poverty out here. Our community needs Derrick Brooks more than the NFL does.''
With Sapp creating havoc, Brooks played off the mayhem up front and made plays all over the field. He was particularly effective in space, maximizing his 4.5 speed with intense preparation and unerring instincts.
“It's hard to find somebody who played any better,'' Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs said. “He had a sixth sense of what was coming. We would try to get him out of the box and stay away from him, but it was tough because Derrick Brooks was everywhere.''
The success of the Kiffin-Dungy defense was predicated on 11 men closing fast on the football. More often than not, Brooks just seemed to get there first.
“I truly believe our defense started with Brooks,'' former Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. “He had the task of lining everyone up in addition to calling plays. Every team wants a Derrick Brooks — a cerebral, uber-athletic player that has the pulse of the team and who embodies the vision of winning.''
Through all those fall Sundays, Brooks was a focal point of an elite defense. Along the way, there were those special moments.
Former Bucs director of college scouting Tim Ruskell remembers seeing Brooks before the start of the NFC championship game at St. Louis in 2000. The Rams, who averaged 33 points per game behind league MVP Kurt Warner, won 11-6 on a late touchdown.
“I'm on the field prior to the game and you literally could not talk to Derrick Brooks,'' Ruskell said. “He was so zoned in that I told (director of player personnel) Jerry Angelo, 'Derrick's in some place I've never seen.' ”
Brooks made 17 tackles that day, including a ferocious hit on Torry Holt that had the Rams receiver coughing up blood.
In 2002, Brooks was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year as the Bucs went 15-4 and won the Super Bowl. The Tampa turnaround was complete, and, as usual, Brooks was in the middle of the action.
“In Bible study, they talk about the four 'Ps,' '' former Bucs middle linebacker Shelton Quarles said. “Preparation prevents a poor performance. From that point on, I studied the way Derrick prepared. I watched him in the film room, I watched him in meetings, I watched him on the practice field. When I saw him getting in the cold tub, I started doing it.''
Brooks kept showing up, and a proud defense kept building a reputation as a dominant unit.
“He had unbelievable God-given ability, but that's not what made Derrick Brooks great,'' former Bucs linebacker coach Joe Barry said. “It was his competitive edge. The recipe for the Hall of Fame is talent and an inner drive to be the best — from May OTAs to training camp in August and from Wednesday to Friday on the practice field. Let's face it, Derrick Brooks had things going for him that even Vince Lombardi couldn't coach.''
Who would have known back in 1995 that this franchise would have two more Hall of Famers at this point? I'm a guy who wanted to be an insurance salesman growing up. Now, I'm in the Pro Football Hall of Fame from Pensacola. That's amazing. — Derrick Brooks
♦ Who's your favorite player?
The 1999 public service announcement featuring Derrick Brooks was voted the favorite NFL-United Way PSA during online voting last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the NFL-United Way partnership.
As Brooks is shown leading children onto a school bus, the announcer says, “This is Derrick Brooks of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He supports the United Way. He has a way with kids.''
Brooks stands at the front of the bus, addressing the students.
“OK, OK, who wants to sing my favorite song?'' Brooks says.
After some hesitation, hands are raised.
“Who's my favorite play-er? Mr. Derrick Brooks,'' everyone sings in unison.
Then the kids start reciting Brooks' accolades.
“Two times All-Pro.''
Brooks stops it there and glowers at a kid.
“Three times All-Pro.''
Brooks shakes his head in affirmation.
“Better. Let's start again.''
And the kids sing on, “Who's our favorite player? Derrick, Derrick, Derrick …''
More than 800 players, coaches and team officials have been featured in the NFL's United Way spots.
♦ The transition
After six years together in Tampa Bay, Derrick Brooks and head coach Tony Dungy forged a special bond. They shared a common approach, on and off the football field, and Brooks was forced to adjust when Dungy was fired after the 2001 season and replaced by Jon Gruden.
“There were a lot of people in the organization and the town that had a tough time with Tony's departure,'' former Bucs GM Rich McKay said. “Derrick Brooks didn't miss a beat. He showed up at Jon's first minicamp ready to go. He was as loyal to Tony Dungy as you could be — but he was also loyal to the franchise.''
Gruden immediately challenged Brooks to raise his game and the Bucs went on to lead the league in scoring and total defense during the 2002 championship season.
“Tony was so revered that you had to dig deep in terms of being a professional,'' said Tim Ruskell, former scouting director for the Bucs. “Derrick was there every day that first season under Jon, pushing the guys. And when that season ended with Derrick's Super Bowl pick, that was divine intervention.''
♦ Chess match
There was more to Derrick Brooks than sheer athleticism and a stellar work ethic. Those attributes alone would have made him an outstanding player, but there was a third component that helped land him in Canton.
“He had so much football intelligence, you couldn't outsmart the guy,'' said QB Brett Favre, who will be eligible for the Hall of Fame class of 2016.
Hall of Famer Jack Ham enjoyed watching Brooks play the weakside linebacker position he defined in Pittsburgh when the Steelers reeled off four Super Bowl wins within a six-year span.
“Brooks understood the passing game so well,'' Ham said. “I loved the fact he was a student of the game and I made it a point to watch him. ... The guy had it all.''
♦ Leader of the pack
Veteran Hardy Nickerson was entrenched as Tampa Bay's unquestioned leader when Derrick Brooks broke into the NFL in 1995, so No. 55 maintained a relatively low profile.
For a while, anyway.
“There aren't words to describe the impact Derrick Brooks had on the men he worked with,'' said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a Bucs assistant for five seasons. “He was the leader of all those alpha males in our locker room.''
Brooks gradually emerged as a quiet voice that carried a loud message.
“Nobody was ever better at standing in front of a team than Derrick,'' former Bucs DB Ronde Barber said.
♦ Unfinished business
When Tampa Bay exorcised some demons by closing down Veterans Stadium with a 27-10 victory against the Eagles that lifted the 2002 Bucs into the Super Bowl, Derrick Brooks knew there was more work to do.
“I'll never forget being in that locker room after the NFC championship game,'' former Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said. “Win or lose, I would always go to the back of the room and talk to my guys. I remember huddling all our linebackers together in a circle, with our arms around each other. We all were saying, 'Can you believe it? We're going to the Super Bowl.'
“Then Derrick spoke up: 'I don't mean to interrupt everybody, but we are going to win the Super Bowl.' I just looked at him and shook my head. That was him ... that was Derrick Brooks right there. Even in that special moment, it wasn't enough for him to say we're going to San Diego. It was about going there to win.''