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The new Mr. Buc

With his first snap today, Derrick Brooks sets a franchise record with h is 18 4th game. And in his 12th season, he remains among the top linebackers.

By RICK STROUD
Published November 5, 2006


TAMPA - As introductions go, it's modest by NFL standards. But the moment fits the man.

Derrick Brooks throws his hands up in the air, the fingers on each hand spread wide to symbolize the double nickel he wears on his jersey.

"I'm a wrestling fan, and Diamond Dallas Page did that with his diamond cutter. I thought that was pretty cool. And I had a chance to meet him, so that's why I do that," he said.

As fans rise to their feet, lifting their voices as if members of a choir, Brooks turns and fires his towel into the seats. He begins a sprint to the reception line of teammates then stops and leaps high into the air. His arms cross above his head then extend to each side of his body upon landing, like a referee signaling an incompletion.

"It's really just kind of a big energy burst jumping up," Brooks said. "It's like I want to get the crowd and get everyone so hyped. I land, and I just feel like laying my hands out because I'm laying it all on the field. I think that's really symbolic of me doing that. I'm ready to lay it all on the field for that game."

Today, Brooks will lay it all on the field for the 184th game, the most by any player in club history.

Officially, he is Mr. Buc.

With his first play, he will surpass Paul Gruber, the steady but stealthy left tackle who played 183 games from 1988-99.

Brooks has never missed a game in his pro career, playing through injury and illness.

But his perseverance has been exceeded only by his performance.

In his 12th season, he has been selected to nine straight Pro Bowls and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2002.

"Records like that are good, but in Derrick's situation, more needs to be made about it because it's not just the simple fact he's played in a bunch of games," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "He hasn't missed any, No. 1. But it's just the way he's played. I think consistency is the truest measure of performance.

"It's routine for someone to maybe have a good year or maybe a good 30 games. This guy has dominated for 12 years. There's a laundry list of things that have gone into that string of games."

While Brooks has been fortunate to avoid serious injury - no broken bones or torn ligaments he'll admit to - he has played hurt without hurting the team.

"You may not make all the plays that you normally make, but you've got to be a contributor," Brooks said. "I think I've been blessed in that aspect because when I've played hurt, I've been able to contribute some; enough to where they felt confident enough to put me out there versus sitting me down and letting someone else get the opportunity."

Many times, Brooks has summoned enough strength to make a game-changing play. Last season, there was the forced fumble at Atlanta against quarterback Michael Vick. In 2002, he iced a game against the Rams by returning an interception 39 yards for a touchdown, continuing to the locker room to ice his sore hamstring.

"I went in and jumped on ice after that play because my hamstrings were hurting so bad," Brooks said. "And then I came out the next week, man, and continued to play well again."

Face of a franchise

At 33, Brooks had expected the Bucs to play better this season. Instead, they are struggling with a 2-5 start, a record he did not anticipate.

That's not why Brooks took a nearly $3-million per year reduction in salary so the team could re-sign its free agents. He didn't expect the lowest-scoring offense in the league or a defense that can't stop the run.

"Every team in America thinks they're going to start undefeated," Brooks said. "That's what you prepare for. We're in this position because we deserve to be in this position. But I'm positive we can dig ourselves out of this hole."

Brooks is unquestionably the face of the franchise. But when the Bucs lose, it pains him. The face contorts in agony. His eyes burn a hole through the scoreboard as if staring at it will change the outcome.

"If you put a face on the Buccaneers, it's definitely him," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He speaks for the players; not only outside the locker room, but inside the locker room as well. You see it mostly on him because he is the unquestioned leader and he carries the burden.

"When we struggle, it's squarely on him probably more than anyone else."

Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, Brooks insists the Bucs are not a bad football team. While it's easy for players to recite the company line, Brooks truly believes it.

"We've had opportunities in the fourth quarter to win the games," Brooks said. "No disrespect to our opponents, but we're making mistakes and doing it to ourselves. It's not a matter of being physically overmatched or someone making a great play. There's simple things we're not getting accomplished that is correctable.

"We've had three other games we should've won that we had the opportunity to close out in the fourth quarter - offense, defense or special teams. But we couldn't close them out. Now the argument says because you didn't close them out, you are a bad football team. But I choose to look at it a different way because I'm out there competing. I've seen it and I've played this game long enough to trust my judgment."

How long?

Tight end Dave Moore, who would have passed Gruber's record had he not missed three games with a cracked rib, said he remembers when the club longevity mark looked like Cal Ripken's.

"I remember when Paul passed Richard Wood at 132 games because that was a very big deal," Moore said.

Brooks isn't one to count mileposts, but because of his relationship with Gruber, this one is more special.

"In my mind, he was always an inspiration to me because he was the consummate pro, how you do things and how you treat people," Brooks said.

"Hopefully, I'll continue to play many more games, but this one, I probably won't appreciate it until maybe when I retire because I'm so one-game minded. I'm probably not giving this the respect it's due at this point. I'm just trying to keep the motor running."

And Mr. Buc has no plans to shut it off.

"I don't think about (retirement) because I keep things short term," Brooks said. "When it's time to cross that bridge, I'll be ready to cross it because it'll be time rather than me saying what's out there next for me. I don't know. I'm just trying to get through the day.

"But whenever that time comes, I feel I'll be ready for it because that's what the Lord's plan is and it's not mine. I think I'll be able to make that adjustment. Who knows when it'll be?"

Rick Stroud can be reached at www.stroud@sptimes.com.

Derrick Brooks

Brooks career stats

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6-0 Weight: 235

Age: 33

College: Florida State

How acquired: First-round pick 28th overall in 1995

Career highlights: League's Defensive Player of the Year in 2002. ... Ninth consecutive Pro Bowl berth and eighth consecutive start in 2005. ... First-team All-Pro in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005. ... One of two active players (Miami linebacker Zach Thomas) with 100 or more tackles in 10 consecutive seasons.