TAMPA — While a debate raged in the Buccaneers War Room during the spring of 1995, Derrick Brooks was chilling out in his hometown of Pensacola, hoping some NFL team was savvy enough to draft him in the opening round.
The Bucs already had pulled off a coup by selecting Warren Sapp out of the University of Miami at No. 12. New general manager Rich McKay was sold on Brooks and, as the first round rolled on, Tampa Bay decided the speedy linebacker out of Florida State wouldn’t last much longer.
“Our focus was to find a way to land Derrick Brooks,” Mc-Kay said. “It became more and more apparent he wouldn’t last until Round 2, so we made our move. We knew we had the ammunition and we were ready to overpay, if necessary.”
The Bucs packaged a pair of second-round picks to Dallas and moved up to the 28th spot, but Tampa Bay’s scouting department experienced one last dicey moment. According to McKay, the Falcons considered taking Brooks at No. 26 before deciding on defensive back Devin Bush. Brooks was Tampa Bay’s at No. 28 — and Mc- Kay landed a pair of Hall of Famers with his first two picks as a draft overseer.
Meanwhile, Brooks was with family and friends at his grandmother’s house in the Panhandle, where fish was frying and nobody dared touch the telephone until Brooks received the call.
“I think I was more nervous than he was,” said Brooks’ cousin, former Bucs running back Melvin Carver, who was part of the gathering in Pensacola. “Derrick was taking it all in stride that day. He was laughing and calm the whole way. I was definitely thinking first round for him. Remember, I saw that young man play.”
So did former director of college scouting Tim Ruskell.
“Derrick wasn’t a huge guy, but what struck you was how many big plays he made and just how instinctive he was,” Ruskell said. “What was even more impressive was how coaches at FSU talked about his leadership. He was off the charts in terms of how other players gravitated toward him.”
Size might have been an issue for some NFL clubs, but the Bucs weren’t overly concerned with Brooks’ 219-pound frame.
“He was undersized by a lot of people’s standards,’’ former Bucs director of player personnel Jerry Angelo said. “Particularly for teams playing a 3-4 scheme. We were the perfect fit for him. We knew we might be able to get him in the second round, but that was a gamble and we had a strong conviction about Derrick. Obviously, our conviction turned out right.”
Brooks had an opportunity to attend the draft in New York, but he decided to stay close to home.
“Mel Carver had been in the NFL and he kind of guided me through the draft process, so I was able to stay pretty level-headed,” Brooks said. “I figured I’d go anywhere between picks 20 to 50. I wanted to watch the whole draft, so I sat there while everyone else partied outside.”
When Brooks officially became a Buccaneer, the walls shook in Pensacola. Even his mother, Geraldine, an avowed Saints fan, was excited once she realized her son would be playing his NFL home games in the Sunshine State.
“There was a lot of hollering and that phone call from the Bucs made the cookout taste even better,’’ Carver said. “It was an awesome time to see our hometown boy make it big. I was thinking first round all the way, but to see Tampa Bay take Derrick was a shock. Looking back all these years later, you can say they definitely made some great choices that day.’’
And 468 miles down the road, the Bucs were staging their own party.
“Derrick’s one of the all-time greats,’’ Angelo said. “He’s a star, he’s got all the accolades, but you’d never know it by talking to him. When that first round ended, we thought we had drafted two great players from the state of Florida. We weren’t staying in our own backyard enough before that draft, but that was the moment our philosophy shifted.’’
The Saints were my mom’s favorite team. That was the closest NFL club to Pensacola and she told me if I ended up being on the Saints, that would be too good to be true.
♦ Even Brooks had doubters
Derrick Brooks started 13 games as a rookie under Sam Wyche in 1995, but not everyone at the team facility was convinced the linebacker would enjoy a stellar NFL career.
“About midway through Derrick’s first year, some of us in the scouting department were told he’s not picking up the defense, he has no feel for the position,” former director of scouting Tim Ruskell said. “Can you imagine? I also remember that during one of Derrick’s first practice drills, they were firing footballs at his feet and knees from about 4 yards away. One of the coaches walked over to me on the sidelines and said, ‘I’m not sure about this kid’s hands.’ ”
In scouting Brooks before the 1995 draft, former director of player personnel Jerry Angelo was struck by his dual nature, on and off the field. Everyone the Bucs talked to seemed eager to give examples of how Brooks led by example, maintaining his poise and focus during the most stressful situations.
But when Angelo studied the game films of Brooks with the Seminoles, he saw a ferocity that made Brooks even more attractive to a franchise starving for relevance.
“Yes, he was soft spoken and articulate in our interviews, but the guy plays nasty,” Angelo said. “Derrick had the heart of a lion and the speed of a gazelle. He could be Mr. Hyde, but you never saw that side of him until Saturdays at FSU and on Sundays once he became a Buccaneer.’’
♦ Great player ... and leader
Florida State coaches and teammates raved about Brooks’ natural leadership skills as the Bucs did their due diligence on a prized prospect. But it was only after Brooks established himself as an outstanding pro that he developed a strong voice inside a Bucs locker room run by veteran MLB Hardy Nickerson.
“You could tell from the moment he was drafted that Derrick had the work ethic and the intangibles to be a great player,’’ said Nickerson, who roamed the middle of the Tampa Bay defense for seven years, with Brooks lurking off his right shoulder for the final five. “You could tell he spent a lot of time preparing, even as a rookie. When you have that approach and add all that God-given talent, you get a Derrick Brooks. Let’s face it, that’s a heck of a package.’’
Nickerson, who will coach Tampa Bay linebackers this fall on Lovie Smith’s staff, befriended Brooks from the start once he realized the Bucs had drafted a special player and a special man.
“It’s fitting that they have retired his No. 55 here in Tampa because Derrick Brooks is one of a kind,’’ Nickerson said. “He’s the greatest Buccaneer ever. Back then, I was doing the best I could to show him the way. All we were trying to do was turn this thing around.’’