After the 2006 season, Derrick Brooks was worried.
Not about his physical shape. Not about his mental shape. But about his team.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit rock bottom, Brooks worried that his words to the team at the start of that season had rung hollow.
"At 4-12 we didn't have a lot to hang our hats on and I asked myself, "I hope I wasn't selling a dream (in 2006). I hope I was selling these guys what was from my heart and what was real,'" Brooks said. "I sat up there this year and I found myself repeating the same things. So I know it's real and from the heart. I expect to be here. I want to be here."
At age 34 Brooks had another solid season. Not quite Pro Bowl worthy, as it had been the past 10 seasons, but solid. He registered 162 tackles, second-best on the team, forced three fumbles and defended two passes. At times, he shared time with newcomer Cato June on passing downs, but it only helped to keep Brooks fresher for the team's playoff drive.
He'll enter his 14th season in 2008. He made it clear he's coming back, as long as the team wants him. He made no hints about retiring.
And he admitted he's more excited about the future than he has been in the past four years.
"I've learned about the wind of opportunity the last four years," Brooks said. "It's not there every year. That's something I'm preaching. We're not going back to the cellar. That fuels my fire to be honest with you. I still see a championship pedigree in his locker room. We just need enough people believing in it on a daily basis."
Brooks has two more years left on his contract. He'll be 36 by then and the window, he admitted, is closing.
So his message to his teammates on Monday was clear — don't rest on what was a wonderful turnaround season for the Bucs in 2007.
"Be proud of where we came from," Brooks said. "The guys that were here for 4-12, be proud of what we accomplished. For those that weren't here, be ready to build on 2007.
"I'm not telling you (the younger players) to be like me. I'm telling you to be better than me."
As for the offseason, Brooks said he'll take some time to rest and reflect on the year, play a little golf and then begin the training process for another NFL season.
He could still play in that Pro Bowl, you know. He's an alternate — albeit not a first alternate like Joey Galloway and Jeff Garcia. And that didn't stop the Pro Bowl committee from calling him in as a last-minute replacement before last year's game.
He's happy to go, if called upon. But Brooks would like a little more warning.
"I made plans last year and got a call (from the Pro Bowl)," Brooks said. "This year I called ahead and asked how far out I was. They said, ‘You're a couple of guys out. I wouldn't go too far.' If it happens, great. I'll go out and have a blast."
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.