Quietly, Brooks is heart of the D
Donnie Abraham got the cheers. Intercepting, then dashing 47 yards for a late, late touchdown. Assuring the Bucs conquests of both Super Bowl XXXIII teams, first Denver and now Atlanta. Making sure it wouldn't be a Sunday embarrassment against Dirty Birds who've spent this season crumbling and bumbling. Jogging all but anonymously in Abraham's wake, as Raymond James Stadium erupted into victorious ecstasy, was Derrick Brooks. Who had really made the play.

Planting a teeth-rattling tackle on Winslow Oliver, the Atlanta receiver. Forcing him to muff the football, which bounded into Abraham's hands. Setting up the glory. "I was just trying to reach Oliver as fast as I could," Brooks would recall, "making a tackle with attitude. After a poor first quarter, when we were flat and lousy, our defense put the hat on. We had to make plays. We did."

Goliath in the background. So often, Brooks is celebrated as nothing grander than best supporting actor. Functioning on a Bucs defense that generates chatty, worldly attention for Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Hardy Nickerson. In Ray-J pews, for every patron wearing a No. 55 jersey, there are two dozen 40s to honor fullback Mike Alstott. A lot more 12s, the business shirt of Trent Dilfer. Time to go shopping.

Fifty- five is way above the speed limit. It's time we chroniclers triple- checked our accuracy. Studying the Fairness Doctrine. Upon further review, the best player on the division-leading, uh huh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers is Derrick Dewan Brooks, a 26-year-old former FSU linebacker from Pensacola. He had 11 tackles against Atlanta. Nine unassisted. Producing a 7-yard sack in the third quarter, knocking the Falcons out of field-goal range, when Atlanta could've edged to a 13-6 lead that might've stood up in a slugfest where points seemed beyond precious. An average Brooks performance. "

Tampa Bay's linebackers make their defense," said Tim Dwight, the mercurial Atlanta wide receiver/kick returner. "They've got everything. All that speed. You've got Brooks out there, then you have to worry about Hardy. They have the best linebackers in the league."

So why doesn't America grant more notice to Derrick? Why not more heroic mentions on ESPN, CNN and HBO? Why no nickname from Chris Berman? Maybe it's the Brooks demeanor. He's humble, a rare quality among so many drooling, growling jocks who play defense. "If there's a better linebacker in the NFL," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said, "I want to see him. If there's a better linebacker, I hope it's Hardy Nickerson."

Lawrence Taylor rewrote the linebacker manual. Probably, because Brooks plays with different priorities, he gets shorted in acclaim. "For our system, Derrick is perfect," coach Tony Dungy said. "He'll never be like LT, a linebacker who blitzes often and gets a lot of spectacular sacks. Derrick gets into position and makes plays. It's easy to take him for granted."

It was a double- dip sweet weekend for Brooks. Before the KO of Atlanta, his old school, Florida State, took down the Florida Gators, earning another national championship shot. When the clock ran out Sunday, the shaved-slick head of Brooks bobbed quickly to midfield, for a bonding with fellow ex-Seminoles. He hugged Atlanta linebacker Henri Crockett, then embraced quarterback Danny Kanell. Soon, he grabbed a photographer, arranging for a picture with Bucs teammates Warrick Dunn and Shevin Smith and Crockett. 'Noles all. But don't expect bragging. "I'm just a humble guy who tries to get into position to make plays," Brooks said. "My parents schooled me to believe that when somebody toots his own horn, it doesn't make much noise."

As he talked, Derrick toweled shower drops. You couldn't help but notice artwork. Tattooed on his chest is the name "Bo." It's not for Bo Jackson. Not for Bo Diddley. Not even for Bo Derek, or Bo Derrick. "It's my old nickname," Brooks said. "My mom called me Bo because I was so bowlegged as a little kid. They put braces on my legs to straighten them. I had gotten to be pretty fast by high school, but actually gained speed at FSU. Funny, but the heavier I became, the quicker I was."

Not an ordinary result. Little about Brooks is by the book. At 230 pounds, some NFL draftniks categorized Derrick as too light to handle the heavyweight jobs of modern pro football defenses. Small wonder.

Hubert Mizell , The St.Petersburg Times 1999