TAMPA, Fla. — Derrick Brooks’ wait is almost over.
The decorated Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio. He will join other venerable NFL figures like Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams in receiving entrance into the league’s most hallowed halls. Many sensations will be felt that day, each common through the years: Pride, exhilaration, gratitude.
Recently, Fox Sports Florida spoke with Pete Fierle, a long-time spokesman for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, about reflections on Brooks and what the Bucs great can expect in the build-up to the induction ceremony.
FOX SPORTS FLORIDA: How would you describe this time of year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
FIERLE: This time of year, it’s just a real excitement in the air that happens. It’s all coming together. It has been a year’s worth of planning. Aside of seeing the physical changes to our campus, there’s just generally an excitement and energy in the air, and it’s because the NFL season is just around the corner, and it’s such an exciting time of year from a fan’s standpoint, as well as all of us here at the Hall of Fame.
FSF: What have you noticed about Derrick Brooks in the last few months during your dealings with him?
FIERLE: We are describing the Class of 2014 as a class of character. … The reason we describe them as a class of character is that they portray the greatest values that the game teaches all of us. And that’s a lot of what we focus on here at the Hall of Fame — those traits and characteristics like perseverance, integrity, respect, teamwork, dedication. Those are not only values that served Derrick Brooks well on the football field to help him turn around a franchise and have a Hall of Fame career, but it’s also what’s helped him excel in life afterwards, and he’s someone who has been someone who has been very vocal about using the leverage of now being a Hall of Famer to do greater good.
I think from his standpoint, he gets it. He understands what this honor means. And that’s something I think every year that’s fun for me, personally, and for us at the Hall of Fame, when you really start to see it sink in. … The advice his fellow Hall of Famers have told him is "enjoy the moment." It will happen so quickly. As the weekend unfolds, it’s just such a special time. Really savor the moment and savor what it means.
FSF: For you, what specific moments around Brooks stand out that show the character you describe?
FIERLE: Aside from following his football career so closely and seeing the type of leader he was — if one thing strikes me, and it’s by his own admission, it’s that he never allowed himself to enjoy it when he was playing, to have fun. When you see him, he has an infectious smile. When you see him, he’s a very passionate person. When he has come here (during a site survey in April), from the time when we only first saw him the moments after he got the phone call that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, as he’s introduced to the entire country in a press conference that followed and just seeing what this means to him … he truly represents a lot of class. It’s not surprising to see that he has continued to do some really great things in life after he finished playing football.
FSF: What is the most surprising thing for inductees that they don’t expect when they arrive in Canton for the induction ceremony?
FIERLE: I’m going to make a Tampa Bay reference, because I think there’s no better example of how big this weekend has come than when you look at the Buccaneers. In dealing with a lot of the media from Tampa Bay last year, I would laugh as we were talking in March or April. Reporters kept referencing Lee Roy Selmon’s enshrinement in 1995. And I would always have to stop them and say, "You know, it’s quite a bit different than that. The building has changed. The entire weekend is drastically different." When Lee Roy was the first Buccaneer being enshrined in 1995, the ceremony was much smaller — it was held on our front steps. I would say that the audience back in 1995 was just starting to branch out to include more than just a regional audience. You’d have some Buccaneers fans.
I think what will strike Derrick and the six others being enshrined is the sheer mass, because you have fans coming from all over the country. You have a media corps now — it’s not a Super Bowl — but the media corps here is huge. And so just the focus on the weekend will blow them away. And then I talk about those 100 gold jackets (previous inductees). Derrick won’t get his gold jacket until Friday night. So his first 36 hours in town, he’s not wearing a gold jacket yet he’s going to be surrounded by these gold jackets. Suddenly, he’s going to wake up Saturday morning, and his head will be spinning as far as all that has happened and all that will happen. I can’t point out enough what it means when you see that critical mass of gold jackets there. It’s the who’s-who being introduced. … It’s literally a who’s-who of the greatest to have ever been involved in the game. And that, I think, really hits home to them.
FSF: What will Brooks’ schedule be like when he arrives in Canton?
FIERLE: Aside from the public schedule, which you can see it on our website, there’s a big variety of events going on. But there are also sprinkled in there a lot of private events — some with just Hall of Famers. Then perhaps the most notable would be the Nitschke luncheon that occurs on Friday afternoon. That is named after the late Ray Nitschke, Hall of Fame linebacker from the Packers. And it’s a luncheon that the Hall of Famers take very seriously, and it’s preceded by a reception before the luncheon that includes some VIPs. And then what happens is when it comes time to go into lunch, it’s Hall of Famers only. The ritual is that the new class is not permitted to speak during this. And there will be several of the Hall of Famers. It used to be so small that all the Hall of Famers would speak. But when we’re talking 100-plus gold jackets back, they’ll choose certain Hall of Famers, and they’ll explain to the seven new guys what it means to be part of this fraternity.
I’ve been here 25 years, and I never grow old of seeing what it means to them. You and I can talk about it all we want, but that club is a club unlike any other. That’s what really hits home. Derrick’s wearing a Super Bowl ring. He’s got a pretty good football resume, and we’re going to hear lots and lots of that all weekend. But all of the sudden he’s on a team, as Deacon Jones once described, that not only can you not be cut or traded from, you can’t even die off this club.
FSF: How do you think a player like Brooks weighs a team achievement like the Super Bowl championship and an individual award like the Hall of Fame honor? How do they compare?
FIERLE: The reason you compete and you train and you work as hard and you dedicate yourself like Derrick did — he did not miss a single game in his entire career — you don’t have that kind of passion and dedication unless your goal is the ultimate. And the ultimate of what he could accomplish while he played wasn’t necessarily being named All-Pro, wasn’t necessarily being named Pro Bowl, but leading a team — especially what he was a part of in transforming a franchise that had a long history of losing and turning them into Super Bowl champions that I know he takes great pride in.
There’s really three icons of being a Hall of Famer: The gold jacket, which Derrick will get on the eve of his enshrinement, the bronze bust that he and his son will unveil on enshrinement day, and then back in Tampa during the season he’ll get his Hall of Fame ring. But being a Hall of Famer encapsulates so much. It encapsulates all the glory of winning the Super Bowl, it encapsulates all of the hard work, all of the training camps year-in and year-out that he devoted everything he had to being the best he could be. So all those football accolades play into it. But then it’s also an opportunity to reflect on all the teammates that helped him accomplish that, all the coaches — not only in the NFL but in college and in his youth and then his family. The Hall of Fame really encapsulates his entire life.