TAMPA, Fla. -- In his office at the Tampa Bay Storm's headquarters last week, Derrick Brooks looked the part of a successful president of an Arena Football League team. He also looked as though he could still go out and play linebacker in the National Football League.
But something was different about the Brooks of past week and the one I've known since he entered the NFL in 1995. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I asked Brooks if he was nervous about being a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Class of 2014 will be selected Saturday and Brooks, who played 14 seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is on the ballot for the first time.
"I must admit I think about it every day," Brooks said. "There's a nervous energy about it. It's kind of like the feeling you get before you play a game. But here's the difference: If I'm playing a game, I know I can do something about it and I have a say in it. This situation here, you don't have any say in it.
"The résumé has been written. My career is what it is. If I could write the next chapter, I'd be going in with this class. But the nervousness about it is you just don't know. It's human beings making a vote and there's no guarantee of anything."
That's a stunning admission from a guy who always seemed to have supreme confidence. Brooks was ice to Warren Sapp's fire during the Buccaneers' glory years, which included a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Brooks, now 40, always seemed calm as he was earning 11 Pro Bowl berths, nine All-Pro honors, the 2002 Defensive Player of the Year award and the 2000 Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
But now Brooks is nervous?
Sure he is and it's understandable. That's largely because he always has been a student of the game and knows plenty about its history.
"You talk about the founders of football," Brooks said. "You talk about the history of the game. You talk about the first African-American players. You talk about greatness for centuries. You get a chance to have your bust sit in that room and share that history."
That's where the nervousness kicks in.
"I always watched the process," Brooks said. "But now I watch it with a different intent, like, 'Am I worthy of being in that company?' I guess it presented more questions for me about my career. 'Am I worthy of a bust?'"
Absolutely. Brooks deserves to be a first-ballot selection. He's the best player I've ever covered and that includes Sapp, who went in on the first ballot last year.
More than anyone -- with the possible exception of coach Tony Dungy, who also is a Hall of Fame finalist -- Brooks was responsible for one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history. Prior to Brooks' arrival in Tampa Bay, the Bucs had been a laughingstock for a generation. That point was driven home in 1996 when Brooks and Sapp were sitting in a San Diego hotel room, getting ready to play the Chargers.
"Playing a late game, we got a chance to see the pregame shows," Brooks said. "Those guys were making jokes about the Yucks, the Yuckaneers, the quarterback rating for Trent [Dilfer]. They were making fun of us. It kind of resonated with us and Warren and I just looked at each other. I was upset. But he was pissed. He went to a new level with his anger.
"I internalized and said, 'I'm going to do something about this.' But he externalized it. We went to pregame and he just went off on how we were being so disrespected by everybody. We went out there and went down 14-0 before you could sneeze. But then we fought back and won that game. I think the confidence that we built on the road that day was the turning point. I don't think it's ironic or a coincidence that we came back a few years later and won a Super Bowl in that same stadium."
In 1997, the Bucs turned the corner and made the playoffs for the first time in a generation. It also was around that time that two wise men got in Brooks' ear and planted the first ideas that he could have a Hall of Fame career.
Early in his tenure, Dungy, who had played for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 1970s heyday, sat down Brooks and Sapp for a chat.
"He had a conversation with Warren and myself and said, 'You can be Joe Greene, Jack Ham or Jack Lambert,'" Brooks said. "It was intimidating. He laid it on the table what his expectations were for us."
Then, there was the late Tom McEwen. He was the legendary sports editor for the Tampa Tribune. McEwen was a grandfatherly figure who cared deeply about Tampa Bay sports. At the time, he also was Tampa Bay's voter for the Hall of Fame and he always was on the lookout for someone to join Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs' first Hall of Famer.
"I had a ton of respect for Tom," Brooks said. "After the 1997 season, we started to have some pretty serious conversations. Tom kept telling me, 'Hey, you've started this turnaround. Keep it going and you can have a Hall of Fame career.'"
McEwen was a sage because Brooks only continued to become a greater player. He was a do-it-all linebacker, a leader and a model citizen. He also led the Bucs to their only Super Bowl championship and made the All-Decade Team for the 2000s.
Brooks played through 2008 and the Hall of Fame credentials are there. Still, the guy who seemed unflappable for so many years is nervous.
On Saturday, Brooks will make some appearances in New York and do a radio show. He knows the nerves will continue to grow as afternoon turns into evening.
"I'll just be sitting and waiting," Brooks said. "What's a couple hours more when you put up years of work to get to this position?"
Not much I guess. But Brooks shouldn't have to be nervous. He did his work. Now, it's time for the Hall of Fame voters to confirm him as what he made himself into -- a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With no reason to be nervous.