TAMPA, Fla. — There are no locks, but Derrick Brooks was as secure as a first-year finalist could be.
There are no certainties, but the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker entered Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame vote much like he did most of his decorated 14-year career: As a constant, a sure thing.
Canton is calling. Another Buc is on his way.
There are many notable memories from the other Class of 2014 members — from Andre Reed to Michael Strahan, Walter Jones to Aeneas Williams, Ray Guy to Claude Humphrey. Year after year, names are debated and careers weighed in the hours before the Super Bowl, the line between "finalist" and "inductee" almost too small to parse.
With Brooks, though, "finalist" and "inductee" always appeared one in the same. Any reasonable-thinking person who respected the NFL’s history understood Brooks’ place within it. He redefined his position in the seasons after the Bucs drafted him 28th overall in 1995, growing from an unproven rookie from Florida State to an established veteran who changed his franchise’s fortunes.
His resume is noteworthy — 11 Pro Bowls, a nine-time All-Pro, an Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, a Super Bowl XXXVII champion — and he’s arguably the Bucs’ greatest player ever. His status within pewter-and-red lore is secure, and rest assured, there will never be another man quite like Brooks to play linebacker at Raymond James Stadium. He was an original.
That’s what enshrinement is about, after all. It’s for honoring impact, influence, innovation. There are no "maybes" or "pretty goods" in the NFL’s most hallowed halls. Brooks fits as a one-of-a-kind.
No. 55 became a "10" in most everything he did on a football field. It’s impossible to tell the story of the Bucs’ renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s without him. Dating back to the build-up of Warren Sapp’s enshrinement last year, there was a sense of "Brooks is next" in most everything that was said. There was a feeling that this would be a two-year pewter-and-red party in Canton, Ohio, an earlier era’s legacy understood.
Sapp was the soundtrack of the recovery.
Coaches Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden were its brains.
Brooks was its heart, and it beat strong.
"I can’t help but be nervous about it," Brooks told FOX Sports Florida about the selection process in January. "This process is something that I thought about every now and again (and turned) to something I think about every day. That’s just the human spirit."
There’s humility in the way Brooks carries himself. It was evident in all the interviews he conducted before Saturday’s vote. Though most observers were certain he would be named a Hall of Famer, Brooks refused to take the process for granted, and he wondered out loud often who could possibly be trimmed from the 15 modern-era finalists.
That’s what makes this night a fitting signature of his career, an appropriate chord to strike before he gives that speech to remember on a humid night on Aug. 2.
The depth to his character is no act. That’s who he is. That’s who he has been all along.
Brooks, in many ways, was the right man at the right time for Tampa Bay. He was the ice to Sapp’s fire on those dominant defenses, one man inspiring the other at a time when sustained success for the Bucs was a myth before they arrived. Tampa Bay never would have reached the heights it did under Dungy or Gruden without them. To this day, the franchise searches to recapture that old magic, now long gone.
As the Bucs blossomed, though, so did Brooks. He was a man who lived the promise he showed in college as a three-time first-team All Atlantic Coast Conference player, a two-time consensus first-team All-American and the 1993 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He made his first Pro Bowl three seasons into his career, a hint of his path to come.
Now, he’s a symbol for young players who enter One Buc Place with dreams of their own. He joins Sapp and Lee Roy Selmon as Tampa Bay’s Hall of Famers. But he’ll forever be his own man, his own reputation, his own aura, within a region where his presence remains strong.
"No one is more deserving," Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, Brooks’ linebackers coach from 1996-2000, told the Bucs’ official website. "I’ve had a chance to be around some great players and some are first-ballot Hall of Famers. There’s nothing as a linebacker Derrick Brooks couldn’t do."
Now, there’s nothing more for him to do.
Canton is calling. Brooks’ wait for that sweet word was appropriately brief. The heart of those dominant Bucs defenses will beat all the way to northeast Ohio, the rhythm constant, the destination predictable.
"If I’m elected or if I’m not," Brooks told FOX Sports Florida in January, "I’m going to have the spirit to accept what it is and enjoy the process the entire way."
And why not? Brooks — the complete man, the total figure — was as good a bet as they come.