It was a striking scene: In a back room at the Washington Marriott hotel was Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks. He was standing in a circle with 13 children. Every child wore a number 55 Brooks jersey, everyone was holding hands, everyone had head bowed and eyes closed. All the children had new athletic shoes, which Brooks had paid for the night before, and they felt they should thank Brooks in a personal way. God, thank you so much for this opportunity. Thank you so much for the new shoes. And thank you so much for Derrick Brooks, one child whispered, and the others added their thanks. After that, each child said a prayer.
When the prayers were over, the kids rushed on to a bus to tour the District, the purpose of their trip here from Tampa. As part of his "Brooks Bunch" program, Brooks paid for 13 children from Tampa's Ponce De Leon Boys and Girls Club and six chaperons to spend four days seeing the nation's capital. On Tuesday, the group met with Florida Senators Connie Mack and Bob Graham, visited the White House and the National Archives and rode in limousines to see the play "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center.
This is the third year of Brooks's program, but the most expansive trip to date. The first year, Brooks gave some children tickets to a Buccaneers game. Last year, a group of kids visited Atlanta. Next year, Brooks is planning to take a group to Africa.
"This wasn't our idea," said Buccaneers community relations official Stephanie Waller. "Every year, Derrick just does this because he wants to. He's on his own half the time."
In this, the age of free agency, holdouts and lock-outs, the generosity of someone such as Brooks is a rarity. Brooks, a Florida State graduate who is working on his master's degree in communication, estimated that he will spend $20,000 on the trip here.
Somewhere inside, Brooks is touched by each child's story. Maybe it's because Brooks is so close to his mother. Maybe it's because his stepfather, A.J. Mitchell, died on Father's Day in 1997 and Brooks wants to try to provide a meaningful presence in the lives of these children, some of whom are from poor backgrounds.
"I've been really blessed, and I need to share that," Brooks, 24, said. "These kids deserve this kind of trip."
To be selected, the children, whose ages range from 10 to 15, had to write two essays, list the historical significance of District landmarks, list the local colleges, maintain high grades and behave well in school.
That doesn't mean, however, that the kids have been on their best behavior all the time on the trip. During a visit to the National Air and Space Museum, 15-year-old James Moore approached a cashier and told her that his "older brother," the millionaire football player, wanted her phone number. Once the number was relayed to Brooks, with a wink and smile from the cashier, Brooks looked like a man who had been had.
But such fun was part of the purpose of the trip, as well as educating the kids and giving them experiences outside of their lives at home.
"Some of these kids may come from underprivileged backgrounds," Brooks said, "but it's their effort and hard work that got them here."
And it was their new shoes, courtesy of Brooks, that got them around town.