As I prepare to head to Canton, Ohio this weekend to celebrate the induction of Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks into the Pro Football Hall of Fame I’ve been thinking a lot about the 80 Sundays that I spent photographing #55 on the football field. But as I looked back over the photos from Derrick’s years as a Buccaneer, one set of images reminded me why Derrick will always be my favorite NFL player of all time and why he is also one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.
In June of 2005 I boarded a plane to South Africa with Derrick and his Brooks Bunch group of Derrick Brooks Charities. The Tampa teenagers were largely members of inner city Boys and Girls Clubs programs that through hard work and a little luck earned a week-long all expenses paid trip to South Africa courtesy of Derrick Brooks Charities. When Derrick asked me to come along to document their trip I was ecstatic. But I had no idea how powerful a journey it would be.
This trip was all about “Throwing the Rope Back.” Help others climb toward greatness in the way others once gave a hand to you. The trip was part history lesson, part safari and part social experiment keenly engineered by one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers.
We visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, flew on private planes to the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, interacted with local school children and visited Robben Island where one of Nelson Mandela’s cell mates shared the stories of his incarceration and torture during the apartheid era.
When we arrived at Nelson Mandela’s cell Derrick was handed the key to unlock the steel door that held Mandela captive for years. It may be the only time I have ever seen Brooks at a loss for words. After a few deliberate breaths, Derrick turned the key and unlocked the door. He spent time solemnly exploring the cell with the Brooks Bunch students before we boarded a ferry for a quiet ride back to Cape Town.
On our final night in Africa the group was whisked off to a five star restaurant in a caravan of classic cars. Tears were shed by all as the Brooks Bunch let Derrick know just how much he changed each and every one of their lives. The chaperones said the same. So did the South African security detail, the videographer and the photographer. We all got the message and promised to “Throw the Rope Back.”
Looking back at these photos nine years later I see the faces of the Brooks Bunch kids and I am certain they got the message. They are now doctors, teachers, professionals and graduate students working to better the communities from which they came. I don’t know what more of a legacy you could ask for from a football player or a man.
Congratulations Derrick. You’ve set the bar high for all that follow you, on and off the football field.