Published Sunday, January 06, 2013
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
For 31 years, there was always football for Keith Brooking come Aug. 1. A youth practice, a high school workout, a preseason camp ... a team that he could belong to.
For the first time in his career, however, Brooking was home at that time last year, sitting and waiting on the outside for what he hoped would be the perfect situation.
It arrived with the Denver Broncos - the same franchise that denied the Coweta County native a Super Bowl victory as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons. Now it's one that could give him the big shiny ring he's continued to pursue ever since.
As a starting linebacker for the AFC's top-seeded Broncos, now 13-3, Brooking can hardly believe the opportunity that sits in front of him at age 37, the words 'wiley' and 'veteran' now used synonymously with his name as if he was three decades closer to holding an AARP card.
'At this part of your career, you want to be part of a great team with a chance to make a run at a championship with great coaches, great players,' Brooking said in a phone conversation with the Newnan Times-Herald this week. 'It's really a perfect scenario. If I was going to draw it up, really, this is the way I would have done it before the season started.'
His body still hasn't failed him, at least not since his early 20s when Brooking suffered the only major injury of his 15-year career. This season, he's recorded 54 tackles, 33 solo in his 16 games, about half of what he traditionally posted during his All-Pro years with the Falcons, but while playing in all Denver's base defensive sets.
Consistency may be the key to both his success and longevity in a league where the average career is a little over six seasons.
'I've been a part of a lot of teams and our turnover is great in the NFL. Year in and year out, teams change, players change. And the key ingredient is consistency in your approach every day. It's very important,' Brooking said. 'You have to be not just consistent with your play, but consistent in your mindset, the way you approach things every day and everything you do in the weight room, those things you do to take care of your body. Your film study and your practice habits. You have to be consistent in all of that.'
His teammates, who are on the verge of something special heading into this year's NFL playoffs as the odds-on-favorite to win the Super Bowl haven't let him down either.
'I realize the opportunity that this team has. I'm grateful and I'm honored to be a part of it. I've enjoyed every moment of it,' he said. 'We're together in this. To have been a part of 11 straight wins and to have this opportunity at this point in my career that's a great thing to be a part of.'
Brooking is again sitting at home today, his eyes keenly on a final AFC wild-card game that will decide this week's divisional- round opponent in Denver. Since coming on as a starter in Week 3 of the regular season, the Broncos have lost just one time while entering the postseason on a leaguebest 11-game win streak.
Playing alongside rising star Von Miller, Brooking got a call from the Broncos and team president John Elway when linebacker D.J. Williams was suspended for nine games. He later leapfrogged Joe Mays as the starter at middle linebacker, joining Miller and Wesley Woodyard in Denver's 4-3 defensive scheme.
'Once I got my legs underneath me and learned the system, I fit right in,' Brooking said. 'The guys have welcomed me with open arms and I found a role. That's all I was asking for. I didn't have any expectations. I knew if I just came in and did what I was supposed to, like I always have, I could find a role on this team. It worked out perfectly.'
In Denver, Brooking found himself again playing for a defensive-minded coach in John Fox and for a former NFL linebacker in coordinator Jack Del Rio, who knew plenty about being a head coach in the league as well. Del Rio's system was friendly toward the position and one that he picked up quickly after recovering from a hamstring injury suffered on his first day in Denver.
'It's a very linebacker friendly defense. He knows what it takes to be successful and puts you in a position to make plays. Being a part with those two guys, they're just great football coaches,' Brooking said of Fox and Del Rio. 'I played against Coach Fox in the NFC South for many years. I had a ton of respect for him. His teams were always well coached, tough guys that played hard, and it was a battle every time we played the Carolina Panthers when I was with the Falcons.'
But there's no doubt which veteran he feels has inspired the success. Denver - which at one point of the season was the only NFL team with three position players age 36 or older - has thrived in the arrival of All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, who sat out a full season following neck surgery.
With Manning on board, the Broncos' offense rose from 23rd in the league last season to fourth, and Denver's defense jumped from 20th to second. They scored 481 points a year after scoring 309. And their defense allowed 289 a year after yielding 390.
When Manning told reporters he was 'not the same player' this season, Brooking - known for an honest opinion - was quick to call his quarterback 'a liar.'
The two, who came into the league together in the 1998 NFL Draft, Manning the No. 1 overall pick of Indianapolis, Brooking the 12th by the Falcons with much less fanfare, are suddenly merged on the same path where championships are the driving force.
'I'd say it's mind boggling, but it doesn't surprise me one bit cause I've witnessed it and I've seen it and the work he's put in to be as successful as he is,' Brooking said of Manning, who has thrown for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns, numbers that are second-best among his 15 regular seasons. 'For him, winning championships is what it's all about. You better believe he did it with due diligence in making that decision, and knew what he was going to get when he came here. Obviously, he's elevated everyone's game from the time he stepped foot in this locker room.'
The only thing that had gotten 'better' for Brooking through the spring and summer, he admits, was his golf game. Instead of traditional minicamps, better known as 'OTA's', the months consisted of individual workouts - and a whole lot of waiting. While confident that he could still play in the league, Brooking admitted that he wasn't sure what kind of opportunity he'd receive.
And whether he'd want to accept it.
'When training camp started, for the first time since I can remember in the 31 years I've been playing since I was six years old, I wasn't involved with a football team at that time of the year,' Brooking said. 'I won't say that it wasn't tough. It wouldn't be the truth.'
The last four weeks at home were easily the most strenuous, wondering if a potential contender - only a handful of which seemed to exist in the preseason - would come calling.
'I felt like from getting input from people I respect and know the game, that I could still contribute to a team and have an impact and play at a high level,' he said. '[It was] just whether or not I was going to get that call from a team that I wanted to be a part of. It was just amazing how it all worked out.'
With Elway inking Manning to a monster $96 million deal over five years, Denver was also in a market for veteran talent at bargain-basement prices. Brooking's deal is a simple 1-year, $1 million contract. But the opportunity at a potential championship was impossible to pass up after spending his first 11 years in Atlanta and the next three in Dallas.
'I think playing as long as I've played in the league, I've seen a lot of systems and that enabled me to pick up on Jack's system quick,' Brooking said. 'I was in decent shape. Obviously I wasn't in football shape, I hadn't been part of a training and conditioning program for the first time in my career. I was working out on my own. It took me three, four, five weeks to really get my legs underneath me obviously because I pulled my hamstring first day of training camp.'
Despite the injury, Brooking has continued a games-played streak that now sits at 192 straight, the third longest currently in the NFL.
'I've been fortunate in that I've been able to stay healthy. My serious injury, which came three years into my career, I haven't missed a game since and I've been very fortunate in that standpoint,' he said. 'It has to do with not being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It also has to do with taking care of your body and putting the right things in your body and knowing what your body takes in order for it to be at its physical potential week in and week out. I think I've got that figured out.'
Elway, who has handled most of the GM duties this year, didn't seem in any rush to see Brooking produce with one of the youngest roster's in the league. Only eight Broncos have played in the NFL for longer than nine years including former Georgia Bulldog Champ Bailey.
Meanwhile, 36 Denver players have been in the league for five years or fewer.
'It's a great mixture. John Elway and the scouting staff has done a good job of creating a good mixture young and old. I think you've got to have that as a young man's game, there's no doubt about that,' Brooking said. 'We have a great veteran presence on this football team. But they've also done a great job of getting young guys that love the game of football. They come to work every day and football means a lot to them.'
Of the few Broncos with Super Bowl experience, Manning, Brooking and others may be able to provide a unique perspective at the opportunity Denver has with the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs at Mile High Stadium.
'Not that the young players don't love the game and don't understand the position we're in now. It's just part of the process. When you play in the league as long as some of the veterans have, and you've had up and down years and you put yourself in a position like you have now, you realize how precious those moments are,' Brooking said. 'You can't have a bad day in the playoffs. There's no makeups. It's do or die. Man that's what it's all about. That's what you live for in this league, to put yourself in a position to win right now.'
It's also why Brooking hasn't thought of his own career beyond what the Broncos' destiny might be over the final month of the season. Regardless of the potential ending, retirement hasn't seeped into his mind.
'This is the honest truth. I have not thought about what I want to do, whether it's play another year or whether I have more football in me, one time. I've been enjoying every moment being a part of the Broncos right now and where we're going,' he said. 'The only way I can enjoy that is to be in that moment and to embrace the grind and what it takes to be at our best next Saturday. I enjoy that more about anything in this game, what I'm doing right now.'
Not even the thought of winning an elusive Super Bowl and walking into the sunset a champion may chance that mentality - at least for now.
'The perfect scenario for me right now is sitting home this weekend and watch the games of our potential opponents next week and study them,' he said, '… and rest this 37 year-old body.'