TAMPA — His “office’’ was tucked away inside the relative quiet of the linebackers’ meeting room, far from the commotion of the congested locker room and the chatter at the end of the chow line.
That’s where Derrick Brooks took care of all Buccaneers family business.
Mostly it was football-related issues he tackled there, hearing complaints about practice schedules, questions about conditioning regimens or concerns over how to approach a coach about playing time.
Brooks, though, was far more than a football consultant. To his teammates, most of whom he treated more like sons than brothers, he was the godfather-like figure they could go to for guidance and advice, no matter the issue.
“If you wanted to talk about problems or a business venture, you went to The Don,’’ said former Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith, invoking the nickname Brooks earned for the advisory role he played on the team. “If you needed to talk about the offense we were playing that week or something in your life, if there was just something that you needed to talk out, you went to The Don. He was a one-stop shop.”
That shop did not open immediately upon Brooks arrival in Tampa. It came into existence over time, as advice from the unquestioned quiet, yet firm leader of the team slowly became a much desired commodity.
Eventually, though, it became a shop virtually everyone ventured into — partially out of respect, but largely because that’s just the way things were done. Even the players who shared Brooks’ rank sought him out for advice.
“Everybody needed to go see The Don,’’ said Warren Sapp, Brooks’ longtime roommate and a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee. “Before I got up and ranted and raved in front of the team, I went to The Don, too. ‘Hey, you’re with me, right?’ The one dude you didn’t want saying, ‘Ah, I don’t know about that,’ was Brooks. Once you lost the corner church, you was done. You was done without that.”
It wasn’t just the players who went to see The Don. During his tenure as coach of the Bucs, Tony Dungy often sought out Brooks, as well. Not for advice or guidance but for a barometer reading on his team.
So strong was Brooks’ hold on the locker room that he usually learned of festering problems within it long before Dungy did. Even better, he usually solved them before Dungy learned about them, as well.
“There was a lot of stuff that just never got to me,’’ Dungy said. “Derrick would say, ‘You might want to know about this,’ but by the time I learned about it, it would all have been handled already.
“That’s just how strong a leader he was. He’d tell the rest of the team, ‘This is what Coach wants, so this is how we’re going to do it,’ and then it would be done. As a coach, you can’t put a price on that kind of thing.’’
If anyone paid a price for Brooks’ unique leadership qualities it was Brooks. He was proud to be known as The Don, enamored with the moniker, but there was a heavy burden that came along with it.
“I did take it as a sign of respect, but there was a lot of pressure associated with it,’’ Brooks said. “It was just another level of accountability that was put on me.
“But I really wanted to know how guys were doing personally and wanted to help if I could. And so I accepted it like I do everything — with a great deal of humility.’’
More than anything it was that humility that earned Brooks the nickname. It was a characteristic present in every aspect of his life. Teammates took notice and sought to honor it.
“At the end of the day it was a salute like you might give to the President — ‘Hey, you’re the man, the Don Corleone,’’ former Bucs guard Cosey Coleman said of the main character in “The Godfather” book and movie. “He had the humility, the leadership qualities, the skill set. He was the total package.’’
Being The Don wasn’t always a burdensome task. There was some humor associated with it as well, especially around training camp, when veterans such as Sapp, John Lynch or Ronde Barber were looking to have some fun.
“We’d get a rookie and tell him, ‘Hey, The Don wants to see you in his office,’ ” Lynch said. “Derrick has such a great sense of humor that he’d get a kick out of that.
“The thing is, he was just such a good sounding board. He’d kind of sit back in his office back there, in the linebacker’s room, and people would come to him with their problems. And he always had a tremendous pulse of the team. Whether it was the coaches, the players or management, offense or defense, white guys or black guys, Derrick knew the pulse of the organization.”
I don’t know how it got started, everybody calling me The Don. ... Aqib Talib asked me that his rookie year. He said, ‘I was going to call you Mr. Brooks, but somebody told me I had to call you ‘The Don.’ I was like, ‘Aqib, you can call me Derrick, that’s my name.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no. You’re The Don.’ — Derrick Brooks
♦ Turning up the heat
The sauna at One Buc Place was Derrick Brooks’ hideaway. He was notorious for staking his claim, turning the heat up to what for many were intolerable temperatures and staying for what seemed like hours.
One day, fellow linebacker Barrett Ruud got the bright idea of trying to outlast Brooks.
“Guys usually started running for the door as soon as Derrick started cranking the heat up, but I wanted to see if I could wait him out,’’ Ruud said. “I was sure I could, but it was ridiculously hot in there and so I was in there trying to keep a conversation going with him just to keep my mind off the heat.
“We were in there for something like 35 minutes and all of a sudden I started to see stars and so, finally, I just had to drop out. So, I get out and, literally, 30 seconds later, I’m walking down the hallway and I look back around the corner and there’s Derrick slumped over in a chair just outside the door, about half passed out.
“That just told me that he would have gladly passed out in that sauna before he ever would have walked out of the door before me. That’s how competitive he was and how much he owned that sauna.’’
♦ Rule 55
Being The Don of the Buccaneers carried with it some unique responsibilities. For example, Brooks eventually became the veteran who would address the incoming rookie class of players each year.
But being The Don also had its privileges. One was applied during practice, when Brooks had a tendency to work at a different pace than most everyone else.“The rule was called Rule 55,’’ former Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “It basically said that Derrick wore his pads when everybody else was in shorts and wore shorts when everyone else was in pads.
“And there was always one rookie every year trying to make the team who would come too close to Derrick’s ankles in OTAs or training camp or something, but he’d learn pretty quick that, ‘Hey, nobody touches The Don.’ We definitely had our Don Rules.’’
♦ Action figure
Ask former teammates to describe Brooks’ leadership style and they’re all likely to give you the same description: He talked softly but carried a big stick.
“He wasn’t a talker,’’ Warren Sapp said. “You had to lean in. But when he said it, oh, it would be powerful.’’
The power was rooted in Brooks’ résumé. A first-round draft pick and perennial Pro Bowler, he was the epitome of a player who made his biggest statements on the field.
“He did a lot of, ‘Watch what I do,’ ’’ former Bucs punter Mark Royals said. “His actions always spoke louder than any of the words he said.’’
The words he used, though, always seemed to be the right ones and always seemed to strike the right chord. Perhaps because he had a way of asking for something without demanding it.
“I never heard him order you to do anything,’’ Royals said. “It was just, ‘Watch how I do this.’ And that translated into you wanting to get into that hole and dig with him.’’
A lot of those messages were delivered before the start of a game. That’s when Brooks was his most animated, most emotional and most vociferous.
“He’d walk around and get guys hyped,’’ former Bucs running back Warrick Dunn said. “But he let his actions speak. He was one of those guys who, if he said it, he was going to back it up on the field.”