TAMPA, Fla. — Eighteen years later and now headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Derrick Brooks laughs at the memory of sitting in a hotel room the morning of a game early in his career.
He was turning on a TV and being riled by a national commentator who not only forecast another loss for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but jokingly referred to the struggling team as the “Yucks.”
The young, undersized linebacker who would go on to become the heartbeat of a Super Bowl champion turned to roommate Warren Sapp, another second-year pro embracing the challenge of transforming one of the worst franchises in pro sports history into a title contender, and the two of them locked angry eyes.
“I was upset. Sapp was beyond upset. … We thought we were turning the corner,” Brooks recalled. “We kind of looked at each other and I said: ‘This has got to stop. We’re not going to be defined by this.’”
As first-round draft picks in 1995, Brooks and Sapp entered the league with a team that suffered through 12 consecutive seasons with 10 or more losses before their arrival.
Along with hard-hitting safety John Lynch, they formed the cornerstone of a dominant defense that keyed a Super Bowl run in 2002 and ranked among the best in the NFL for more than a decade.
It’s difficult, though, for Brooks to talk about where he helped lead the Bucs during a Hall of Fame career without remembering that Sunday in San Diego.
That was when the “Yucks” rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to beat the heavily favored Chargers under a first-year coach named Tony Dungy, architect of the cover-2 defensive scheme the Bucs played so well it became known as the “Tampa 2.”
“The way we were able to come back and win that game, I attribute a lot of that to our turnaround,” Brooks said.
“Coach Dungy as a coach was about excellence. He had his quiet way of challenging us,” the 2002 NFL defensive player of the year added. “Some days I’d look at my grade sheet, thinking it had been a pretty good work day. He’d crumble it up and say it’s not good enough.”
At 6 feet, 235 pounds, Brooks was deemed by many to be too small to excel at outside linebacker in a league where bigger, stronger athletes such as Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas set a standard for the position as ferocious pass rushers.
That was a role Brooks rarely was asked to fill in 14 seasons with Tampa Bay.
Instead, he transformed the position by developing into one of the best all-around linebackers in league history, using his speed and quickness to make plays all over the field and ending his career with 25 interceptions, 13 1/2 sacks and 11 Pro Bowl selections.
The six-time All-Pro scored four touchdowns off turnovers in 2002, then capped the greatest season in franchise history with a 44-yard interception return for a TD during Tampa Bay’s rout of the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl.
“People say he didn’t rush the passer. He didn’t have to. That was my job. You can’t have one guy doing everything,” said Sapp, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013, his first year of eligibility.
Brooks, a first-ballot selection this year, will be inducted on Saturday, joining his long-time friend and former roommate, as well as 1995 inductee Lee Roy Selmon as the only Buccaneers enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“People ask me all the time, who was the best? Brooks was. He could touch every person on your team and they’d walk away feeling like: ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to follow him and go through the wall,” Sapp said. “He’s the greatest outside linebacker that never rushed the passer. Period. It’s not even close.”
Shortly after arriving in Tampa Bay, Dungy sat down with Brooks and Sapp individually and expressed his belief that they had the potential to mean just as much to the Buccaneers during their careers as Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Joe Greene did to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.
Both of them took the challenge to heart, with Brooks emerging as the unquestioned leader in a locker room featuring dominant personalities, including the boisterous Sapp, Lynch, Keyshawn Johnson and Simeon Rice.
“He really was the soul of that team. … There was a special way that he went about his business and conducted himself,” Dungy said.
“He would come to me and say: ‘You need to be on the lookout for this.’ Or he’d tell me: ‘Here’s what’s going on,’” the former coach said. “He had the heartbeat of the team, and it was in his heart to be like that not only for the team, but the community.”
As good as Brooks was on the field, he’s been equally impressive off it, winning numerous awards for civic and charitable work. In 2006, he helped establish the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa.
“We had a stage that was big enough for everybody to stand on. And at the end of the day, just the way that I carried myself kind of put myself in a position where everybody felt they could depend on me,” Brooks said.
“I didn’t say anything unless it needed to be said, and I always backed it up with action,” he added. “I always wanted to be the type of person to make a rookie feel just as welcome as a teammate of mine for 10 years. I treated them both the same. I think that earned guys’ respect.”