- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO After leading Tampa Bay in tackles for the fourth straight season, Derrick Brooks was headed to his fifth straight Pro Bowl last January. And yet he was unsatisfied and unhappy.
His numbers were down in 2001, and the Buccaneers had come up short in the playoffs again. The team's first-round loss to Philadelphia cost beloved coach Tony Dungy his job.
Brooks vowed that things would be different this season. And the quiet leader of the Bucs' mouthy defense doesn't make promises he can't keep.
"Inside of me, that's where the fire burns," said Brooks, who was bothered by a sprained foot for much of 2001 but didn't miss any games. "I didn't have to talk about it. [Linebackers coach Joe Barry] knew about it. He challenged me. I just stepped up and responded."
And in rare fashion.
Brooks won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after returning four turnovers for touchdowns (one shy of Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston's 31-year-old NFL record), led all linebackers with 15 passes defensed and again topped Tampa Bay in tackles. His three interception returns for scores in the first five weeks were more than any linebacker had ever had in an entire season.
More important, Brooks captained a ferocious unit that led the league in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense. And after holding the potent San Francisco and Philadelphia offenses to a combined 16 points the past two weeks, Brooks and the Bucs will play the Oakland Raiders today in Super Bowl XXXVII at Qualcomm Stadium.
"The last time a linebacker won this award, he went on to win a Super Bowl," Brooks said. "And that was Ray Lewis [with Baltimore in 2000]. Hopefully, that will be the case here."
If so, Brooks will have to control dynamic Raiders running back Charlie Garner, who during the regular season led the NFL's top offense with 962 rushing yards and added 941 yards on 91 catches and scored 11 touchdowns. The elusive Garner had more receiving yards than famed wideout Tim Brown and more touchdowns than Brown and incomparable receiver Jerry Rice combined.
"Charlie is a very big key to their offense," Brooks said. "They are a well-oiled machine, and he gets them going. Charlie is a very special back. To put him in the category of [St. Louis Rams superstar running back] Marshall Faulk is very deserving."
The Faulk comparison is fine with Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who was amazed by the way Brooks shut down the Rams' standout in Week 3.
"Derrick made a couple of tackles against Marshall Faulk who is unbelievable that blew my mind," Gruden said. "Derrick said, 'I've been doing this every game for seven years.' I don't know how he hadn't won the award before. He's a great coverage player, an unbelievable tackler and has great instincts."
Oakland coach Bill Callahan compared Brooks and the other Bucs linebackers to "raptors" because of their ability to roam sideline to sideline. And Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, the league's MVP, is anticipating a mental battle against the savvy Brooks, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in business from Florida State.
"Derrick's a very intelligent player," Gannon said. "He reads the quarterback's eyes very well and he's always around the ball."
And always there for his team.
"As a linebacker, it's not enough just to know your job," said Brooks, whose work ethic is unmatched in Tampa. "You need to know what your defensive line is doing, what the cornerbacks are doing, what the safeties are doing, because on game day if they ask you a question, you need to answer it because you are a leader of this team."
No wonder Gruden who has worked with such immortals as Rice, Brett Favre, Steve Young and Joe Montana said he has never been around a more inspirational player than the 29-year-old Brooks.
"This team follows Derrick," Gruden said. "He's a softspoken guy, but when he talks, he's like that old E.F. Hutton commercial people listen."
That's also true in the community. For the last five years, Brooks has taken underprivileged children from the Tampa area on trips to such locales as Africa, the Grand Canyon and Washington.
"I just want to make an impact on this world and change kids' lives," said Brooks, who was honored as the NFL's Man of the Year in 2000. "It's the concept of throwing a rope over a fence because you never know who is going to grab it."
Today Brooks and the Bucs will try to grab their first title.
Only four teams have allowed fewer points in a 16-game season than the 196 Tampa Bay surrendered. Two of those four the 2000 Ravens and 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl. So did the 1985 Chicago Bears, who are right behind the Bucs, giving up 198 points.
"They got it done," Brooks said of those championship teams. "If we get it done, then we deserve the right to be in the same conversation as the greatest defenses of all time."

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