Derrick Brooks, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. build a legacy beyond the field
TAMPA, Fla. — One day, shortly after he found inspiration for his next goal, Derrick Brooks sat with Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and sold him on a vision. Their conversation happened after Brooks’ trip to South Africa in 2005, one in which the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker bonded with Tampa Bay-area youth, and he looked for his foundation’s next challenge.
Brooks wanted to start a charter high school, and he knew DeBartolo, a Tampa resident and former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was the right man to ask about forming a partnership. In 1996, the DeBartolo family established the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, Calif., a public school founded with a goal of keeping kids safe and focused on graduation. Brooks read about the academy’s influence and wanted to achieve something similar.
Brooks’ pitch to DeBartolo lasted all of about five minutes. The former owner was hooked, a bond in education born between two men known for their NFL backgrounds.
"Yes, let’s do it," Brooks recalls DeBartolo saying at the time. "I see your heart. You know me — I’m all about making a difference."
This is an interesting time for Brooks and DeBartolo. On Jan. 9, both men were named finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Brooks for the first time and DeBartolo for the third consecutive year. On Feb. 1, they will learn if they’re awarded the NFL’s greatest honor for their impacts on a game in which they became among the modern era’s best: Brooks appeared in 11 Pro Bowls and was a Super Bowl XXXVII champion, never missing a game in his 14-year career; DeBartolo built the 49ers into a powerhouse, guiding them to five Super Bowl titles in 23 years.
Long after they saw their last snap, though, Brooks and DeBartolo began work on a new legacy. In August 2007, Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School opened its doors. Its first site was located in a former Circuit City building in North Tampa with 183 students grades 9-11, after the Hillsborough County School Board approved its charter application.
Today, 430 kids grades 9-12 attend the school at an 11-acre campus in North Tampa, after a $15 million renovation of a former church site was completed in 2012. Students are chosen by random lottery and attend for free.
The school is positioned as an environment for kids, regardless of socioeconomic status, to excel in a smaller educational setting. There are no plans to expand the enrollment beyond 600 students — 150 per class — once it reaches the threshold. But school officials estimate they have received about 700 applications total the past two years.
"Sports really is being part of the community and helping the community," DeBartolo said. "It ties people together. … You’re helping the community stay together and become one because it’s just a goal, and I think that goal transcended when Derrick and I became close, became friends. It transcended into our love of helping kids."
Many former athletes and owners find purpose outside of sports, of course. The best use their platforms to enhance the world, the most self-aware becoming more whole in the process. A career on the field and in the most powerful offices should be a beginning, not an end.
That’s why this connection is unique. Two men, who happen to be considered for Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement at the same time, have combined their resources for a greater good. Football is one legacy. Life is opportunity for another.
Brooks, past chair of the school’s board of directors, views his partnership with DeBartolo as working toward a greater mission. In earlier years, he had heard about the former owner through friends with Florida State ties who had played in San Francisco, like Deion Sanders and William Floyd.
But Brooks discovered DeBartolo’s football persona — the towel-carrying, high-demand, high-reward personality who made the 49ers the NFL’s elite under his leadership — was only the start. There was much more. A football identity was only a start.
There was a deeper passion present, one that extended beyond what was revealed on those memorable Sundays at Candlestick Park. It’s found when DeBartolo makes surprise visits to the school and chats with principal Kristine Bennett about issues of the moment. It’s found when he takes time to enjoy the looks on kids’ faces, their futures influenced by his past. It’s found when he sends flowers to the office, after the school received its fourth consecutive "A" grade from the Florida Department of Education and a 15-year charter extension.
"When you have a giving heart, you can bring two powerful foundations together jointly and do bigger things," Brooks said. "I think that’s our bigger message we give to the world: You can bring good people together who have the right attitude and the right heart to make a difference in this world."
"Every time a kid graduates from that school, every time a child is able to go to college," DeBartolo said, "you can sit back and feel really good about what has been done."
The vision is still growing. The school has recovered from early hard days. It received a "C" grade from the FDOE in 2007-08 and a "D" grade in 2008-09. But the past two years, 128 students have graduated and received post-secondary acceptances. Now, leadership is looking for ways to expand.
"We have high expectations," Bennett said.
There are renovation plans to add 10 classrooms and build an amphitheater. The school’s athletics program started in the 2008-09 academic year, and now it offers volleyball and baseball, softball and tennis, bowling, boys/girls soccer and boys/girls basketball. There are hopes football can be added someday.
"They both know how to do it right," said David Mallitz, president of Brooks DeBartolo Charities and chairman of the school’s board of directors. "They do the right thing. A lot of owners, whether it’s pro sports or businesses where money’s needed, they won’t make what’s perceived to be the right decision. Derrick and Mr. D tend to do that all the time. Whatever the consequences are, they want to do what’s right."
Brooks and DeBartolo, no matter the outcome of the Hall of Fame announcement, will be forever remembered for their fame in football. One is the smart, hard-charging linebacker who helped lift his moribund franchise beyond a losing history. The other is the smart, savvy owner who made his West Coast jewel one of the game’s most decorated dynasties.
Now, both are part of something more. Their fingerprints are on the future.
"That goes well beyond that 100-yard football field," Brooks said. "He approaches it the same way he did when he was an owner in this league."
"We wanted to make sure in some small way we could help kids achieve the ability to go to school and get to college and make something of themselves," DeBartolo said. "Derrick is a great influence on not only kids but grown-ups. He’s a Hall of Famer. It has been a pleasure for our family to be associated with him."
That’s a legacy to keep.