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Former NFL superstar Derrick Brooks talks passion, drive for creating change in Tampa Bay

Veronica Brezina



Derrick Brooks (left) and Lakshmi Shenoy of Embarc Collective (right) at the recent Startup of the Year Summit in Tampa. Screengrab.

Derrick Brooks, who is best known for his time as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker, has grown his passion and impact off the field. 

Brooks, a former NFL Hall of Famer, leads the corporate and community efforts at Vinik Sports Group, which manages Amalie Arena and the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also created his own charity, Derrick Brooks Charities Inc. 

Brooks was one of the speakers and judges at the Startup of the Year Summit in Tampa. The summit spotlights growing startups and presents awards to those creating an innovative solution. 

In an interview with Embarc Collective Founder Lakshmi Shenoy held during the summit last week, Brooks spoke on how his passion and grit drove his career path and how that same mindset is replicated in startups today. 

“It all starts with your attitude. You have to find the proper attitude in anything you do. For me, it was obviously coming here and being part of the Buccaneers team in the mid ’90s. It wasn’t the Buccaneers team we see today with a different uniform and different attitude,” Brooks said. “It was a losing franchise in a losing culture.”

He said the team experienced a major pivot when Tony Dungy became the head coach in 1996. 

“He flipped the script in really how we think, and it wasn’t necessarily how we thought about the game of football and preparation, it was about developing a passion to go out and affect our community and we are going use the platform of playing football [to do it]. That really flared my passion – how I could be a bigger influence to the bay area and City of Tampa and not just between the white lines of playing football,” Brooks said. “You can’t divorce your passion. You have to stay with it.” 

Brooks was the NFL draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995, fueling his 14-year, hall-of-fame career. While he is known as a football legend, he used his passion to aid the community. 

Derrick Brooks Charities is a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps to develop young leaders in underserved communities. 

The charity offers a justice youth crime prevention and intervention program that serves between 4,200 and 5,000 youths and families annually through life skills and anger management workshops, tutorial services and parenting workshops. 

“You want people around you that you want to serve and buy into your business. That’s how I led Derrick Brooks Charities when I first started – there was no job too big, no job too small. It was about a labor of love,” he said.

During the Startup of the Year Summit, he also advised the startup founders who were pitching at the event to not oversell their startups and be aware of their audience. 

He recalled the time he met with former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo. Brooks met DeBartolo at his home and had a full slideshow presentation prepared, pitching the idea to DeBartolo on how the pair could form the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School.

“I was prepared more for that than some of my opponents on the field,” Brooks said. “I walk into his home and start to talk. I go immediately into presentation mode with slides. In about three to five minutes into the conversation, DeBartolo said ‘I’m in,’ but I don’t hear him tell me he’s in. I keep presenting and another minute goes by and he says, ‘Derrick, I’m in.’”

However, Brooks was fixed on the presentation and didn’t hear DeBartolo’s response and continued presenting for another 30 seconds before DeBartolo then told him to stop. 

Brooks said it was then that DeBartolo said, “I was your partner from the moment you walked in. The first thing that came out of your mouth was you loved to teach.” 

“Sometimes you can have overkill,” Brooks said. “I was almost a victim of that.” 

Brooks and DeBartolo opened the charter high school in 2007 to provide quality education, similar to that of private schools in Tampa, but without the large price tag.


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