TAMPA — Sunday after Sunday, down after down, Derrick Brooks crafted a memorable career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For 14 seasons, in orange or pewter, No. 55 didn't miss a game. He didn't miss many tackles, either, while establishing himself as the prototypical weak-side linebacker in the Tampa 2 defense.
On Saturday, Brooks learns whether he will be joining former teammate Warren Sapp in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“It's hard to find somebody who played the position any better,'' said Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. “Derrick Brooks had an instinct, a sixth sense for what was coming. You can't teach that. In Washington, we tried to stay away from him. That wasn't easy, though, because Brooks was everywhere.''
Before he was an 11-time Pro Bowler, Brooks joined Tampa Bay in 1995 as a late first-round draft choice out of Florida State. When the Bucs hired Tony Dungy as head coach the following season, Brooks found an NFL mentor who challenged him to be great.
Dungy told Brooks he would flourish in Tampa Bay's new defensive scheme, assuming the same responsibilities as Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham.
“My first year in Tampa, Hardy Nickerson went to Hawaii and he bought Derrick a Pro Bowl T-shirt,'' Dungy said. “Brooks wore that T-shirt every day in practice underneath his pads during the 1997 season.''
The Bucs ended a 15-year playoff drought that year as Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch formed the cornerstones of a smothering defense that generated euphoria among Tampa Bay fans and dread among opponents.
“If Derrick Brooks doesn't get in as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, something's wrong with the process,'' said Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk. “It's a no-brainer. Derrick Brooks was the total package ... he had everything.''
With Sapp causing disruption up front and Lynch providing thunder from the secondary, Brooks flourished in space.
He tracked down Faulk and Barry Sanders in the open field. He covered tight end Shannon Sharpe over the middle. He punished Michael Vick.
At times, you could find him shadowing wide receiver Cris Carter downfield.
“Brooks understood the passing game so well,'' Ham said. “He was such a gifted athlete and he also had that amazing work ethic. I marveled at how he understood what people were trying to do. I can't think of another outside linebacker who had Derrick's capabilities as a cover guy and a run stopper.''
While Sapp craved attention, Brooks operated in the shadows, suggesting to Sapp what theme of the day he should dangle in front of a voracious Tampa Bay media.
“We called Derrick 'The Don' in a most affectionate way,'' said current Steelers head coach and former Bucs assistant Mike Tomlin. “He was the unquestioned leader of alpha males in that locker room. Ability, instincts, passion, intelligence ... Brooks had it all.''
It all came together during the 2002 championship season, when Brooks accepted a challenge from Dungy's successor and turned in a year for the ages.
With Jon Gruden raising expectations for a stellar unit, Brooks was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, returning three of his five interceptions for touchdowns before adding another score off a pick in the Super Bowl rout of the Raiders.
“Going against Derrick all those years, he was just a flat-out player,'' said Sanders, whose Lions faced the Bucs twice a season in the old NFC Central division. “He was a terrific athlete with great speed and physicality. He'd stick his nose up in there and he was so smart. When they got Derrick Brooks, that's when that defense took off.''
Since making the list of 15 modern-day finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Brooks has turned introspective.
“It's going to be special,'' Brooks said of Saturday's announcement. “How special? I'll tell you on Feb. 1. Now, I'm competing against John Lynch, Tony Dungy, Eddie DeBartolo ... it's strange. If you don't feel for the other guys, you're not human. This part of the game is built up for you to look inwardly and you've got to feel selfish to a certain degree.''
The powerful bond between Brooks and Sapp was forged over the years as roommates on the road. They know each other's tendencies, on and off the football field, and now there's a chance they will sport adjoining busts in Canton.
“When a guy reinvents a position, that says Hall of Famer to me,'' said Bucs co-owner Joel Glazer. “Derrick was a great leader on a great defense. He could be mayor of Tampa or governor of Florida if he wanted it. In a game that is so physical, for him to play week in and week out at that level speaks to the man's incredible mental toughness.''
Brooks, 40, is now serving as a mentor for Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. In his second year at Brooks' old spot, David earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2013.
That leaves him four All-Pro berths behind his role model.
“There are a lot of great players in this league, but there are only a few that define a position,'' said Fox analyst Brian Billick. “Derrick Brooks did that in the Tampa 2. You ask a lot out of the (weakside) linebacker, but whatever you asked out of Derrick Brooks, he did it better than anyone else.''
Brooks admits he can't stop thinking about Saturday's announcement of the Class of 2014 and the potential of joining Ham among the football immortals.
“Derrick Brooks understood the game like nobody else,'' Ham said. “He's the most complete linebacker I've ever seen — and there's a big gap between him and whoever's next on that list.''