Class, leadership and one heck of a hitter

Class, leadership and one heck of a hitter

It is like a shark smelling blood in the water or a lion stumbling on a lone impala on the African plain. When he locks in on an opposing receiver it almost isn't fair.

He starts to analyze the play from his spot 20 yards off the ball. He spies the receivers coming off the line. A quick glance at an offensive lineman dropping back to pass block confirms his suspicion that the ball will be in the air.

His head is on a swivel as he analyzes the developing play. Within seconds he spots a receiver coming over the middle and starts to get excited. As the hapless pass catcher comes closer and closer, he starts to make his move. He cannot commit yet, but another quick glance, this time at the quarterback's eyes, tips him off that the ball could be coming his way.

In the back of his mind the tendencies he spotted in film sessions are playing out. Most of his thoughts are centered on the receiver who is now coming tantalizingly close.

Once the ball is in the air he starts to pounce.

He has a split second to make a decision. Does he play the ball or does he go for the kill shot? More often than not he'll eschew the ball and go for the knockout.

He begins his assault. He speeds towards the defenseless opponent. As the ball approaches he begins to tense.

He starts to coil like a snake. It's subtle, but he's cocked and loaded. As he times the punishment, he leaves his feet. If all goes right he should arrive at the same time as the ball.

"That's when you are in the point of no return," he says. "It's either go for the ball or go for the receiver. During those times I see the person. When I see the ball in his hands and I try to attack him."

The receiver feels the leather hits his hands right as he feels the shoulder pads connecting with his lower back. Our defender does not hit the man. He tries to explode through the man. If the receiver is lucky there will be just some pain, punishment for coming into the wrong zone. More often than not he'll drop the pass, or at the very least hear footsteps all night long.

Occasionally he'll stay down. Gasping for air. Trying to regain his bearings.

One way or another, the hapless receiver will learn not to challenge Darrell Brooks.

There is a certain beauty in a perfect hit. For the hitter at least. The perfect hit has a certain sound and feel. When the timing and speed are just right you know it. You feel it. A tackle is nice, but a big hit can be as good as any high.

Not only does the hit give the hitter a rush, it gives his whole team a rise. Heck, it fires up an entire stadium. There is a reason the big hit highlight package is a huge seller for the NFL. Players and fans alike want to see a punishing blow. It is one of the things that has made football the most popular sport in America.

"The big hit is what definitely gets you in the game," Brooks admits. "Once you get popped or pop somebody that's what gets the juices flowing. You definitely get excited. Some of the best feelings you can imagine come into mind when you hit somebody."

There have been few Wildcats who have hit like Brooks. Chuck Cecil and Brandon Sanders come to mind. Cecil was too rough for the NFL, while Sanders was once flagged for hitting "too hard".

The irony is that off the field Brooks is a soft-spoken, nice guy. If you saw him on campus you'd never know he once knocked NAU receiver Kory Maur out, not once, but twice on the same hit.

He waits in the wings until it is his time. This time it is fun. Several hundred high school football players gather in the summer sun. Most find shade under a tree, but a few take a knee in the Tucson heat. They are eager. Having spent the past few hours listening to the coaches and running various drills.

Now they get a break and want to hear what Brooks has to say. While many young men would dread having to speak to a large group, Brooks is at ease. He is calm and casual in front of the high schoolers.

It is not always this easy. A coach is fired. Call Darrell. A coach is hired. Call Darrell. When McCollins Umeh passed away tragically it was Darrell Brooks who had to discuss a teammate he didn't really know.

He never ducks the media. He never begs off an interview. He is always present and accountable. After every tough loss or every tough season there was Brooks sharing a thought or giving a statement.

"I've seen some of the best times here and some of the worst times. It puts a lot of things in perspective because things are not always that great. You just have to overcome them all with a positive attitude."

You'd think he would be sick of it. Sick of the reporters, the cameras and the microphones, but he's not. Darrell Brooks the standup guy likes being the voice of the team.

I love it," Brooks said. "I like talking. I think that is the biggest thing, I don't mind talking."

Being at the forefront is nothing new for Brooks. Since he was a little kid he's been the one making speeches, or giving presentations. It is not as pressure packed as having the glare of the television cameras on you after a tough loss, but when you are 12 years old and speaking at grade school commencement the nerves can flare up.

"I like going out a speaking because once the cameras are off I am a very quiet person. Ask my friends and family, I don't talk all that much. When I have to do things for this I love speaking."

He came to Tucson from Miami. He left a national championship contender for a rebuilding project. He was used to coaching NFL caliber players and now he was stepping into the unknown.

Mark Stoops did not know what he was getting into. To be truthful, he did not know who he had to work with. After all the 2-10 Wildcats were not on television too often.

Little did the new Wildcat defensive coordinator know but he had a top-shelf safety already in the fold.

"I didn't know about him before I got here," said Stoops. "I just watched him on film and it didn't take long to figure out what type of person he is and how committed he is to doing."

It wasn't just his ability as a football player that caught Stoops' attention. He saw a player who was a hard worker and accountable. Stoops quickly learned he had a true leader in the program. The kind of dedicated player who's work ethic was contagious and who could inspire his teammates to go the extra mile.

"He's as good a leader as I have been around," Stoops said. "He cares a great deal. He's very passionate. He wants to win."

It would be easy for Brooks to throw in the towel. Three years of tough circumstances could have beaten him down. Three losing seasons is tough enough to deal with, but being one of the few standout performers on a bad team is even a tougher pill to swallow.

Brooks could have blamed the circumstances and given up. He came to Arizona to be a part of the John Mackovic era. He was to be a building block of the offensive minded coach's defense. Before he played a down he through three defensive coordinators. By the time Stoops took over the defense, Brooks had already played for a third defensive coordinator.

Brooks has seen a lot. He witnessed the player revolt, a then the midseason firing a year later. He saw most of his recruiting class dissolve due to being fed up, academics, injury and indifference. He saw injuries take their toll and browbeating coaches dismantle the team chemistry.

He could have been jaded and lost his passion for the game but when Mike Stoops arrived on campus nobody was more anxious to turn the page than Brooks.

"I tell people all the time that I don't think that any other athletes at any other school in the nation have experienced the things that we have here," Brooks said. "I think it has made me a better person, a more well rounded person."

Before you begin to nominate Brooks for sainthood, understand he has a vice. Well, a second vice that stands next to knocking out opposing ball carriers. Sadly, Brooks is an addict.

Blame former Wildcat center Channing Frye. He's the one who got Brooks hooked. He was the one who introduced Brooks to his late night secret.

Frye may now be in the NBA but he left Brooks behind to deal with their love. Channing Frye may have moved on but Darrell Brooks is still hooked on the Cartoon Network. After a long day in class and on the field Brooks likes to come home and relax with his animated programs.

The hard hitting safety who has left many a wide out writhing in pain at his feet loves cartoon. So much for the tough guy mystique. Baby Stewie on the Family Guy is a guaranteed laugh. The oddball humor of Aqua Teen Hunger Force gets him every time. One of the toughest players in the Pac-10 gets a kick out of a homicidal baby and an inept super hero meatball.

"I'm a nerd," Brooks confessed. "I like to stay home and watch Cartoon Network pretty much all day."

Nothing about Brooks suggest that on game day he wants to take you out. He's always smiling. You'd expect a perpetual scowl or at least a constant glare. Nope the minute practice of a game is finished No. 6 is laughing and joking. After a game, win or lose there is Brooks talking to kids, signing autographs and being the perfect ambassador for Wildcat football.

He's a self professed nerd who claims he is "boring". Tell that to the next player who gets up from a big hit trying to figure out which way is up.

At Pac-10 Media Day he wore a bright pink shirt that probably matches the highlighters he has on his desk back home. Not exactly the color of a stone cold killer.

Brooks is in grad school. He's getting a masters in Public Administration to compliment the psychology degree he already has. While most players are planning their domination of the NFL, Brooks wants to run the athletic department.

"I am doing an internship with Mr. Livengood right now," Brooks explained. "I talk about it all the time with President Likins. I told him that when he steps down Jim should run the school and I should take over at McKale for him."

That's right, Brooks wants to be an athletic director. Or a coach. Well, after his shot at the NFL. Both Mark and Mike Stoops believe he can play on Sundays. Both also feel that he would be a natural for their current profession.

Brooks has missed spring ball with an injury but instead of watching from the sidelines, he was involved with the instruction. The staff had him teaching the younger players in an effort to keep him involved. Sure it was reinforcing what he himself had been taught, a way for him to learn without doing. While being hands on Brooks caught the coaching bug.

"Coming off of the shoulder injury this spring I definitely got a good taste of what coaching would be like," Brooks said. "I really liked working with the guys and showing them how to do things."

The tale is not complete. We know about Brooks the hitter. We know about Brooks the leader. We know about his ambitions and even his love of cartoons, but there is more to his game than big hits and inspiration.

He was pursued by most of the Pac-10 and the Military Academies. He wound up choosing Arizona over Stanford, in large part because it would be easier for his family to travel form Southern California to see him play. He sat out his first year and started at corner back as a redshirt freshman. Although he was better suited for safety, injuries and poor play saw him become a cover guy.

He didn't have the blazing speed that most corners possess, but he was smart and had enough instincts to earn honorable mention All-Conference honors at the spot.

The next year he and fellow sophomore Lamon Means began a partnership that continues today. The two big hitters had their share of growing pains, but served notice that they would be among the Pac-10's best safety duos.

"We've grown together believe it or not," said Brooks. "We've definitely come into our own together. We're like brothers after spending four years together. We know exactly each other's attitude. We get each other pumped up."

Last year they may not have been the best pair of safeties, but they were the hardest hitting. By midyear most teams avoided throwing over the middle whenever they could help it. Brooks picked off just one pass, but disrupted nine attempts and had a team high 73 tackles. A lack of a reliable pass rush is probably all that kept Brooks from being a first teamer on the All-Conference list.

Brooks does not demand respect, he commands it. He did not decide to be a team leader, the players decided for him. He's a stand-up guy, who is not afraid to speak his mind and is willing to walk the walk before he talks the talk. He won't ask a teammate to do anything he has not already done.

When the Cats were conducting their summer passing sessions it was Darrell Brooks, along with fellow senior Mike Bell, who ran them. They made sure guys were stretched out. It was Brooks who made sure that certain coverages and schemes were being practiced.

Fellow defensive back Antoine Cason was asked by the Tucson Citizen about the first thing he would do if he was elected president and the sophomore corner said that he would name Brooks as his Vice President.

The receiver walks to the line. Checks with the official to make sure he is lined up right, then he begins to scan the field. He looks to see where No. 6 is. He is supposed to go over the middle. He is glad that the play is designed for him, but he wishes it was to the outside, or better yet a long bomb.

He knows he may get hit. He tells himself that he will hang onto the ball. He tells himself that it won't hurt too bad. He tells himself that maybe Brooks won't hit him squarely and maybe he'll miss altogether.

The receiver tells himself this, but deep down he does not believe it.

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