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Derrick Brooks made it look easy

For 14 years, the Tampa Bay linebacker was the master of his craft.

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It is so hard to make playing linebacker look like a skill position. It is a job that when done really, really well by the most talented people on the field resembles either a.) a rodeo contestant successfully completing a calf-roping, or b.) a runaway forklift tearing through a terrified warehouse full of workers. Linebackers traffic in blunt force and obstruction, and while that's a skill, it's not the kind you would ever confuse with the gossamer frames of wide receivers catching passes on their fingertips, or a quarterback gently floating a fade in over a cornerback's hands. It is a position with skills, but not what you could call a skill position.

Derrick Brooks, though: Derrick Brooks made linebacking look like a skill position. Part of it came from playing weak-side linebacker, where he often had to cover receivers and play in space against people who should have been faster than he was. Brooks shattered that theory, and was faster in space than many of his opponents were. Cutbacks by running backs were swallowed whole, and passing lanes choked off before they ever got a chance to open. Brooks was not a prototypical weak-side linebacker. He was instead a redefinition, a soccer midfielder fed lean buffalo meat for years and forced to memorize the route trees of doomed offenses.

The midfielder descriptor isn't a knock. At six feet even, Brooks was kind of short for the position, and started life as a safety before moving up to linebacker on a full meal plan and squats. His physique was a mismatch for his movements. Brooks's legs weren't long, but he strode with such huge steps that on interception returns he looked like he was loafing, even when he was clearly pulling away from defenders in pursuit.  But his arms were cartoonishly long, so much so that he could bat a pass into the air wrongfooted, juggle it a few times, and then haul it in with a receiver's touch like someone five inches taller. He read plays so well his finishes looked like afterthoughts. By the time Brooks had diagnosed a play, he was already at the point of attack -- cerebral pursuit paired with consistent, intimidating violence. Yet that violence was controlled. For someone who started as many games as he did, his career penalty total is shockingly slim.

He was undersized, and it never, ever mattered. In 224 games, he started 221 of them. Luck is part of that, but so was being the smartest person on the field at all times. Brooks rarely found himself in car crashes he had not designed himself. His interception in the Super Bowl might be his most famous highlight, a startling image of a weakside linebacker playing pass coverage like a safety, cutting off the route, and then running the ball back past the entire Raiders team with that weird, slow/fast uncatchable gait.

Somewhere in all that jaunty NFL synth music is something you might have forgotten: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl after enduring one of professional football's most singularly blighted franchise histories. Brooks came to the Bucs in 1995. Prior to his arrival, they had appeared just three times in the playoffs. During his tenure with the team, Tampa Bay made the playoffs seven times including that Super Bowl win and four division titles.

Brooks was the fulcrum the Bucs used to lever themselves out of the mire, and into something like respectability. Derrick Brooks wrote checks for so many, and that's before you factor in the cuddly and very real results from his charitable foundation. He was the linebacker Tony Dungy constructed his career around, and a huge reason Jon Gruden is paid handsomely to construct obvious nicknames for football players on live national television. ("I call this guy "Big Thighs," cause he's got big thighs.") He stayed with Tampa while other, more replaceable Bucs defenders left for lucrative free agent contracts made possible by playing next to Derrick Brooks. Keyshawn Johnson has a Super Bowl ring thanks to him; so does Brad "Captain Checkdown" Johnson. You could even argue that Brooks' talent was the foundation for the increased value of the Tampa Bay franchise, a value that allowed the Glazers to ride a wave of liquid credit to ownership of Manchester United. (Please don't blame him for this, Man U fans; he was only doing his job.)

In summary: Derrick Brooks made everyone he played with (or for) richer, better, and smarter. He caught the greatest running back of his era, Barry Sanders, in the open field like a cheetah bringing down an eleven pound chicken. He could have played any role in the middle of the defensive back and midfield with ease. He read QBs like a cornerback, and had the hands of a receiving tight end. Sing it with me: who's your favorite player?

The refrain is the same as he goes into the Hall of Fame this weekend: Mister Derrick Brooks. 153 tackles. 36 assists. And now, you get to sing that to him while he gets a yellow jacket and thanks his mom, and probably says "Better. Let's do that again" after you finish, because this is Derrick Brooks' bus. Everyone gets a little better when he's leading the field trip.