The tutoring sessions take place about once a week. The phone rings. Florida State star linebacker Derrick Brooks answers. Former Florida State star linebacker Marvin Jones talks.
It has been this way since Brooks arrived at Florida State and found himself under the watchful eye of Jones, a year older and a season wiser. The way Brooks tells it, Jones has always had a soft spot for him. Maybe it was because Brooks reminded Jones a little of himself--fast, slightly undersized, possessed by the constant need to win.
“He took me under his wing,” said Brooks, a consensus All-American. “I learned a few things about him. When he moved on to bigger and better things, he still kept in touch. That meant a lot.”
Bigger and better meant the NFL. Jones left Florida State after his junior season and was the third player chosen in last year’s draft. He was just emerging as a defensive force for the New York Jets when a hip injury ended his rookie season.
Of course, Jones still can use a phone. Earlier this week, he called to make sure Brooks and the rest of the No. 1-ranked
Seminoles were serious about Saturday’s Orange Bowl game against No. 2 Nebraska. Brooks assured him they were.
And earlier this season, Jones called to remind Brooks about making big plays: interceptions, fumble recoveries, sacks, highlight-film hits. “You’ve got to dream about those kinds of plays,” Jones would say.
So Brooks dreamed and then delivered. After Florida State’s first five games, Brooks had scored more points than Seminole opponents. Against Duke, he returned an interception for a touchdown. Against Clemson, he returned a fumble 83 yards for a score. Against North Carolina, he scored on an interception return.
“In that North Carolina game, before the play, I told him, ‘You’re going to get another interception,’ ” Seminole defensive end Derrick Alexander said. “That’s what he did.
“He’s the Charlie Ward of our defense. We lose so much when he’s not in there.”
And there’s the problem. Brooks has been a part-time player since Florida State’s Oct. 2 game against Georgia Tech. It was then that Brooks suffered the first in a series of cervical nerve “burners,” which is a nice way of saying your arm goes numb.
“You can move it, but you can’t feel anything,” Brooks said.
The next week against Miami, Brooks aggravated the condition, so much so that he decided to sit out the next two games. The reason was simple enough.
“Because one good lick and you can be paralyzed,” he said.
All was relatively fine until the game against Notre Dame, when Brooks sprained his ankle and spent the rest of the day hobbling in and out of the lineup. Florida State lost the game fair and square, but a healthy Brooks might have made a difference.
And then, in the regular-season finale against Florida, Brooks dislocated a bone in his right hand as the first half came to an end. He returned for the second half, but the hand was all but useless.
“I really couldn’t grab anything,” he said. “I was out there more as an inspiration. I was basically trying to wreak havoc.”
Brooks is adept at that sort of thing. At 6 feet 1, 225 pounds, Brooks doesn’t pack the power of his mentor Jones. But few linebackers, Jones included, have Brooks’ speed.
Florida State center Clay Shiver would know. He played against Brooks a few years ago in the Florida-Georgia High School All-Star game.
“The thing I remember about him is that you just didn’t get your hands on Derrick Brooks,” Shiver said. “He was so fast and he always seemed to have the right angle to the ball.”
Don’t bother with comparisons. Florida State players don’t dare choose between Jones or Brooks.
“Uh, uh . . . that’s a hard one,” said Seminole strong safety Devin Bush, Brooks’ roommate. “I can’t answer that one.”
And this from Alexander, who also first met Brooks at that prep all-star game: “Both of them bring completely different packages. Marvin, anytime he could kill somebody on the field. Now if you kill the other team’s best player, what do you think happens?
“But Derrick, anytime he can take the ball from anybody. Marvin, though, was more intense. You knew when Marvin Jones was on the field.”
Brooks has his moments. According to Bush, if Brooks enters the huddle with his forearm muscles tightened and a strange frown on his face, it’s best to do as told. “That’s when he gets real hyper and excited,” Bush said.
It is also when Brooks does his best work. During those first five games--when Brooks had accounted for three touchdowns, two sacks, two interceptions, one caused fumble and 47 tackles--the Seminoles gave up an average of 215 yards and recorded three shutouts. But once Brooks began missing time, the average yardage given up and opponents’ point production zoomed to 334 yards and two touchdowns per game.
Brooks did what he could. He played hurt. He played when others wouldn’t have.
Bush was there those mornings when Brooks needed help tying his shoes or slipping on a shirt. And it was Bush who would get Brooks ice packs for the assorted injuries.
“I saw exactly what he went through,” Bush said. “I know it was real hard for him.”
It still is. Brooks wears a soft cast on his right hand and won’t discard it until kickoff. He has declared himself “90%" sound, which is news the Seminoles can use.
“He’s going to try to do everything,” Bush said. “That’s just him.”
Marvin Jones would approve. In fact, if his injured hip is feeling better Saturday, Jones has told Brooks that he’ll be at the game.
Of course, the real question is whether Brooks plans to follow in Jones’ NFL footsteps. Only a junior, Brooks has been noncommittal about returning to Florida State next season.
Could this be his final game as a Seminole?
“It’s possible,” he said.
Mum might be the word with Brooks, but it isn’t with Alexander, who predicts that the Butkus Award runner-up will be back for his senior year.
“I think he has more to gain (by coming back),” Alexander said. “Because of the injuries, he’s not sure where he would go in the draft.”
Whatever happens, Brooks knows where he will be as Saturday’s game time approaches. On the phone with Jones. Listening. Always listening.