TAMPA — Very quickly, visitors to Booker T. Washington High in Pensacola realize that Derrick Brooks once passed through the halls.
His jerseys are displayed in the school atrium, next to a large photograph. The athletic complex bears his name.
All around Pensacola, where football is king and hometown heroes are royalty, it’s evident he’s the favorite son. He never forgot the town, nurturing relationships with people and places still deep in his heart.
The stories about young Derrick Brooks sound like the stories about an older Derrick Brooks. He was a prideful, ferocious competitor, meticulous, a supreme athlete, a leader whose word was bond.
But some qualities can’t be found on the field.
It was a typical Friday night in Pensacola. The Washington Wildcats had won big again, nothing unusual for a program that made the state semifinals in Brooks’ final two seasons. The players, feeling invincible, organized a late-night, feel-good trip to the pizza parlor.
Where was Derrick?
Fellow linebacker Walter Benjamin swung by the house. Brooks was at his kitchen table — studying.
“I’m like, ‘Derrick, can’t you relax? It’s Friday night. We just won a game. Can’t you come out with us and celebrate? You’ve got the weekend to study,’ ” Benjamin said.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘No man, I’ve got to get my books.’ ”
“He’s a great football player,” Benjamin said. “But there are a lot of great football players in America. If you look at the complete package, the academics, the character, the leadership and the football, I never saw anybody else like Derrick Brooks.
“He was different.”
‘Those parents raised Derrick right’
So much has contributed to this end result.
Most people in Pensacola remember the beginning.
“Whatever happened in that house, that was the right stuff,” said Jimmy Nichols, who was Brooks’ head coach at Washington High. “Those parents raised Derrick right. The grandmother was his life. It’s not anymore complicated than that.”
The grandmother, Martha Brooks, always made time for others. She made Derrick run errands for friends who couldn’t help themselves. She cooked for everyone.
“My whole theme of life is relationships, connections, and I would say it started with my grandmother,” Brooks said.
Sometimes, Brooks saw strangers in his home.
“With her (grandmother), it wasn’t a question of who this is, it was, ‘Welcome — and how can we help you?’ ” Brooks said. “That’s the type of environment she set.”
The grandmother, who died in 1999, was warm and nurturing. His parents were loving, too. But they were also the law.
Geraldine Brooks-Mitchell, who died in 2007 after a lengthy bout with cancer, demanded excellence. Even in a home that he purchased for her, whenever Brooks returned to Pensacola as the much-decorated NFL star, his mother always made him take out the garbage.
Once, she was an athlete, a star basketball player at Washington High, about three years before the sport was officially sanctioned for girls in Florida. She could stop and pop from long range. She was a physical, aggressive rebounder. Almost certainly, she could’ve played for a Division I program.
“Everything you think about with quickness and athleticism with Derrick, that was Geraldine, too,” said Ronnie Bond, for 38 years a football assistant and head girls basketball coach at Washington High, whose wife initially coached Brooks’ mother. “Other girls would back down. She was unafraid.
“And I’ll say this, Geraldine would bite the head off a snake. I think she could’ve been really, really great.”
In her senior year, Geraldine became pregnant with Derrick. He was born in April. Geraldine graduated from Washington High in June.
Whatever dreams she had — and athletically, girls had very few opportunities — they were poured into the baby.
She became a life-of-the-party tailgater around Raymond James Stadium when Brooks played for the Bucs. Back home, though, when Brooks was being raised, she wanted A’s on the report card. “Don’t wear your britches too high,” she said, particularly when things went well.
“I hate to use the word ‘guilty,’ but I always felt the need to succeed because my mom didn’t get a chance to finish her education (in college),” Brooks said. “She was my biggest supporter.”
Meanwhile, Brooks’ stepfather, A.J. Mitchell, was a no-nonsense man who worked at this and that, serving as co-owner of a taxi, fixing cars, anything to bring in money.
Most of the time, things were tight. Brooks studied while sitting on top of a cooler that kept the cold drinks and sandwiches. It was the family refrigerator. Once, there wasn’t money to pay the electric bill, so he studied by candlelight. Sometimes, there was no running water, so he went to the 7-Eleven and filled up a bucket. He shared a bed with his younger brother, Anthony.
“It was really borderline abject poverty,” Anthony Brooks said. “But there was so much love from our parents. We didn’t know how bad we had it.”
But there were great lessons, which still serve as guideposts for Brooks. He still remembers his stepfather’s words:
When you toot your own horn, that’s one breath. If everyone else is tooting your horn, the sound goes on forever.
Brooks chooses defense
At first, football didn’t seem to fit. When he got serious at age 12 with the Catalonia Baby Rattlers, Pop Warner ball, he tried quarterback. After getting demolished on a sack, he walked to the sideline, teary-eyed. He asked the coach about revenge.
“Go play defense, line up in the middle and go to the ball,” the coach said.
Those words shaped a football future.
“I fell in love with the chase,” Brooks said.
At Washington High, Nichols said, Brooks arrived as an average performer, but matured into a major player. It wasn’t so much his muscle or his speed. It was more his will.
“When he got there at the point of attack, he would lay on the most ferocious licks I’d ever seen,” said Nichols, the Washington High head coach. “He always arrived in a bad mood. I could hear him tackle. I knew it was Derrick making the tackle.”
“Derrick was consistently making plays the average kid didn’t come close to making,” said Bond, the Washington High offensive coordinator.
Benjamin, one year younger than Brooks, began his high-school career as a running back. It didn’t last long.
“He’s the reason I eventually moved to linebacker,” Benjamin said. “He hit me so hard, I got dizzy. I told the coach, ‘I want to play football, but I will not run the ball any more until Bo (Brooks’ nickname) graduates. I won’t do it.
“So, I end up playing right next to Bo, which was great. He was like a magnet. You know how they give you those stickers for your helmet, based on how you grade out? He always got the most stickers. He ran out of room. I was like, ‘Where are my stickers?’ ”
Brooks became a prep All-American performer, the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year in 1990. But he was proudest of another award.
Ultimate scholar athlete
Brooks won the Dial Award, presented to the nation’s foremost high school scholar athlete.
The athlete portion was a given. But the scholar accomplishments, although not as widely known, were even more impressive.
Brooks graduated 10th in a class of 435 students at Washington High, earning a 4.22 grade-point average. He carried that over to a 3.94 GPA at FSU and a graduate degree (3.88 GPA).
“It didn’t come easy for Derrick,” Nichols said. “He worked like crazy.”
Brooks said he was driven to avoid the “dumb jock” label. No concerns there. Benjamin, his football teammate, referred to Brooks as a “brainiac.”
Other athletes ridiculed Brooks, calling him a nerd, saying, “You think you’re better than us?” Undaunted, Brooks took a full load of honors courses at Washington High.
“In my high school classes, there was no one else who looked like me,” Brooks said. “I was fighting a whole different battle.”
Friends taunted him for “going down that other hallway,” where honors courses were held.
He glared back: “Why don’t you come down and let me show you what it looks like. Matter of fact, I could use a little company.”
Brooks said one teacher, unaccustomed to having a black male student, insisted he sit in the front row.
“I said, ‘Good, that’s where I want to be,’ ” Brooks said. “Then she sat everybody alphabetically and I said, ‘Don’t move me. Please! Let me stay here. I don’t want you to think I’m going to be cheating to make all A’s. Everybody is going to cheat off me. The only reason you’re going to know that is because I’m sitting in front of you.’
“I was very comfortable in my own skin as a human being. I wasn’t looking for acceptance. When you do that, then you’re trying to be something you’re not. I was very comfortable with who I was.”
In time, all of Pensacola appreciated who Derrick Brooks was — and who he still is today.
“My gosh, Derrick could be instantly elected mayor of Pensacola,” Bond said. “He’s as beloved as beloved can be.”
“Pensacola carries that feeling of home,” said Carol Brooks, his wife, a Washington High graduate. “That’s his foundation. Mine, too. You don’t forget where you come from.”
Pensacola never forgets about Derrick Brooks, either. It’s not possible for a town to be any more proud.
“I was at Bo’s game in Tampa once and I told him, ‘Man, you made it,’ ” Benjamin said. “He looked at me and said, ‘No, we made it. All of us. I’m representing everybody in Pensacola.’
“When they put that jacket on him, I’m probably going to cry. We’re proud that Derrick Brooks is one of us."
Obviously, you are shaped by the place where you grew up. I think Pensacola was a great place for me. I was around good people my whole life. In the mid-1980s, the negative influences were there and easy to identify. But I was put on the right path. I always had the visions of Emmitt Smith and Roy Jones and the things they did in sports. I wanted to be like that. — Derrick Brooks
♦ Pride of Pensacola
Pensacola takes great pride in its local athletes — and the city has a fleet of elite performers to celebrate. Washington High not only produced Derrick Brooks (class of 1991), but also boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. (class of 1988). Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing yardage leader, became a prep All-American at Escambia High (class of 1987).
“I carry a lot of pride for my hometown,’’ Brooks said. “I’m proud to be from there. To have Roy Jones’ success and Emmitt Smith’s success come before mine, I can’t imagine not acknowledging them because they were on the same stage.’’
♦ Different look
Walter Benjamin, one of Derrick Brooks’ closest friends in Pensacola and a football teammate at Washington High, remembers Brooks being a “little skinny kid’’ when they first met in elementary school.
“I do remember Derrick’s hair,’’ Benjamin said. “It was a big, big Afro. Almost like a Lionel Richie look. It was a Jheri curl. Very thick. The hair was bigger than he was, probably.’’
♦ The whipping
Derrick Brooks has told the story so often, it almost seems like a cliché. But his turning point was the fifth grade, when he was a jokester, a bit of a trouble-maker who misbehaved. That changed when his stepfather, A.J. Mitchell arrived at school, then gave him a whipping with his belt in front of his classmates.
Brooks’ younger brother, Anthony, witnessed it first-hand.
“That was the last time I ever heard Derrick misbehave,’’ Anthony Brooks said. “My dad picked me up on the way. I had a front-row seat for that one. He didn’t want me hearing it second-hand.
“He tells my teacher he’s checking me out of school, we got family business. Walks up to Derrick’s class. Walks right past the principal’s office. Waves to the principal as he goes by.
“Dad got there just as Derrick was cracking everybody up with his routine. Walks in mid-laughter. … Dad, one snap, pulls the big ol’ leather belt off and spins Derrick around, like it’s ‘Dancing With The Stars’ or something, about 180, five good ones … whup, whup, whup, whup, whup … Dad never said a word.
“That butt-whupping, Derrick gives jokes about it now. His friends still remember it. But there was definitely a change. D had to see the white light after those five smacks.’’
Brooks said it was definitely a seminal moment in his life.
“I think now about how much of a risk it was for my dad to go whip a child in front of a classroom,’’ Brooks said. “If I did that today, I’d go to jail. My father loved me enough to do it.
“What if his attitude was, ‘I’m too busy,’ or, ‘I’ll talk to him when we get home,’ or, ‘I’ll let his mom handle it’? What if he hadn’t done what he did? What message would I have gotten?’’
♦ Country roots
At FSU, defensive back Devin Bush was Derrick Brooks’ roommate. They did everything together and seemed inseparable, almost becoming part of each other’s family. Bush took Brooks to his home in South Florida. In turn, Bush visited Pensacola.
“When I went there, I found out that Derrick was a country boy,’’ Bush said. “I thought I knew that, but I didn’t know he was to that degree and I sure didn’t know anything about that place. It was seriously different than the way I grew up.
“I’m a fan of everybody’s differences and I love to see the way all my friends grew up. It just took some getting used to. Different lingo. They talked different. It was kind of about doing things outside, lots of wide-open spaces, lots of land, hard-working people.’’
♦ Return man
Jimmy Nichols, who was Derrick Brooks’ head coach at Washington High, fondly recalls a playoff game at Maitland Lake Howell. Washington was trailing and the fourth-quarter outlook didn’t seem promising when Lake Howell was forced to punt.
“The guy we had back there catching punts had fumbled it earlier and they scored to go ahead of us,’’ Nichols said. “So Derrick came up to me on the sideline and said, ‘Coach, I can return punts.’ I said, ‘Derrick, you’re a linebacker, you can’t be returning punts.’ He said, ‘Coach, I can do this.’ So I let him do it.
“Well, he caught the punt and went 64 yards. We won the ballgame. After that, I believed everything he told me.’’
♦ The same guy
For people who knew Derrick Brooks best in Pensacola, his football career with FSU and the Bucs was no different than what they had witnessed at Washington High.
“He could dissect the offense before the snap of the ball,’’ said Walter Benjamin, a fellow Washington High linebacker. “He was making plays all over the field, like he knew what was coming.’’
“The interception and touchdown he made in the Super Bowl? Didn’t surprise me one bit,’’ said Ronnie Bond, who was Washington High’s offensive coordinator. “I saw those instincts at practice every day. It’s hard to believe he was that good as a teenager, but he was.’’
♦ Multi-sport athlete
Derrick Brooks was an accomplished Little League baseball player and also played that sport at Washington High. He also played basketball on Washington’s state runner-up team that lost 69-65 against the powerful Miami Senior High Stingarees in the 1991 Class 4A championship game at Tallahassee’s Leon County Civic Center.
“Steve Williams, our basketball coach, asked me, ‘I know Derrick is a great football player, but can he help me in basketball?’ ” said Ronnie Bond, who was Washington High’s girls basketball coach and football offensive coordinator. “I said, ‘Steve, if he never plays a minute, it’s worth having him on your team. He’s the best leader I’ve ever seen as a high-school athlete.’
“Derrick didn’t play a whole lot, but he was extremely valuable in basketball. Steve later told me, ‘You were right, Ronnie. Just having Derrick as part of our team, that was worth points to us.’ ‘’