Many of the grateful school children at O.J. Semmes Elementary School, all clutching surprise gifts, waited in line to meet Derrick Brooks.
Some were holding a paper drawing with thank you message or a special poem. Others just wanted to give him a hug.
A poignant scene recently unfolded inside the school gymnasium when Brooks, a Blue Wahoos investor, who rose from youth football in Pensacola to become one of the NFL’s greatest players, made another big impact on area kids in need.
In a partnership with Bealls Department Store and Soles4Souls – a company devoted to providing new shoes and clothing to those with challenging circumstances – Brooks and a large team of volunteers outfitted every student at O.J. Semmes with fitted athletic shoes and other gifts.
The school, which is 100-percent financial need based, was identified by Brooks and his Derrick Brooks Charities Inc. to help provide kids with shoes they could never obtain otherwise.
“It’s extremely humbling to me. And it gets emotional to the point where you just thank God for giving me the opportunity be in position to do something like this and see these kids smile,” said Brooks, who became a prep football All-American at Booker T. Washington High, then went on to fame as star linebacker at Florida State and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his decorated career.
He's had a partial ownership stake in the Blue Wahoos since 2018.
Many of the school children were not born when Brooks was inducted in 2014 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – one of just 31 linebackers in NFL history to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. He was also named one of the NFL’s 100 greatest players prior to the NFL’s 100th anniversary season in 2019.
“By being able to provide a pair of new shoes and other things, you want to try and build these young boys and girls up and show them possibilities beyond the walls that they see every day,” said Brooks, who flew into his hometown from his residence in Tampa to surprise the classes at O.J. Semmes and gifts they didn’t expect.
Brooks, who turned 50 in April, juggles his philanthropic efforts in Tampa and Pensacola with his business ties with three of the four major sports leagues in the U.S.
In addition to his role with the Blue Wahoos and the ballclub’s direct connection with the Miami Marlins and Major League Baseball are connections to the NHL and the NFL. He works as executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Lightning in community and corporate development for the NHL team.
He’s also works for the NFL commissioner’s office and attends as many Tampa Bay Bucs games as he can. He played his entire NFL career for the Bucs.
“To me, this never gets old,” said Brooks, who has spent more than 20 years involved in various charitable causes in Pensacola. “And I just say thank you to everyone who believes in our mission, our vision with Derrick Brooks Charities.”
Prior to Brooks’ involvement, Soles4Souls didn’t have a connection or past charitable effort in Pensacola. Tianne Doyle, newly-hired company president at Bealls, is a board member of Soles4Souls and Florida State graduate.
“Tianne first introduced me to the organization a couple years ago and we’ve really been able to grow this into a partnership,” said Krystel Beall, wife of Bealls CEO Matt Beall, whose company has 670 locations across 23 states, including one in Pensacola on North Davis Highway.
Krystel Beall, the company’s community outreach and philanthropy coordinator, along with Doyle were both at the recent event at O.J. Semmes. They helped fit the kids with shoes and take care of the mass setup required inside the gymnasium.
“When they mentioned this school, we did an outreach with them and made the plans to be here,” Krystel Beall said. “We had done something like this before after Hurricane Ian hit Port Charlotte and we turned a school gym into a place where people could come for clothing and other items.
“We had talked with Derrick’s group about the two golf tournaments he does and they mentioned him having a big heart for this area, With our company, as our business grows we want to grow into communities like this one. And putting together this kind of day was a good way to help that cause.”
Beall, who is also an FSU graduate, got to meet many of the children at the school and ensured they left with smiling faces.
“For me, personally, it’s been like my sole purpose to do this work,” she said. “So when I can make a connection and grow those partnerships and nurture communities, that’s what it is really all about. Being an FSU girl, having Derrick here was so exciting for me.”
Brooks held his third annual celebrity golf tournament in August at Pensacola Country Club with an overflow field of players and celebrities. It included a team of Blue Wahoos front office staff.
The previous night, a reception and pairings party was held at the Pensacola Beach Hilton.
It included a fund-raising auction that former Pittsburgh Steelers star linebacker Joey Porter Sr. took over as auctioneer in a fun way to help spur people to purchase various items or trips for the charitable causes.
“We are just doing the best we can to raise awareness and finances to provide resources to programs that we have in Pensacola through my foundation,” Brooks said. “And 100 percent of the proceeds stays in Pensacola.”
The O.J. Semmes school visit was part of several projects Brooks has started in Pensacola. While in town recently, he met with Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons and Pensacola Police chief Eric Randall to initiate the Community Police Relationship (CPR) – a program Brooks started in Tampa with law enforcement and judicial officials in that area.
“These are the moments that keep me motivated, keep me working to try and make a difference,” he said.
The mission is to build an understanding and relationship with law enforcement and the communities they service to help combat crime and keep people on a straighter path.
“We have been successful the last six or seven years in Tampa working with our law enforcement and connecting the community with our law enforcement and our judges for productive conversations and meetings,” Brooks said. “We want to introduce that program here.
“We’re excited about doing it here. There will be some other programs we are expanding as well, and we will introducing those in the near future.”
Brooks has kept up with the Blue Wahoos and their season which continues with the South Division playoffs on Tuesday with the first game on the road against the Montgomery Biscuits. The Blue Wahoos are seeking to repeat as Southern League champions.
After Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer reached out, Brooks became a part owner of the ballclub in 2018.
“I’m very grateful for Quint for opening the door to me for that opportunity to join his group,” Brooks said. “The excitement of the championship run we made last year and how the city really stepped up and embraced our team was special.
“It is truly our team in Pensacola. And I think that is a big difference between us and a lot of the minor league teams in other cities. Is that I have not seen another community embrace their minor league teams like we do with the Blue Wahoos and the Ice Flyers.
“The Marlins are very proud of how we go about our business with our players. We’ve had a good stroke of luck these past couple seasons and hoping it continues.”