HONOLULU -- Rarely a man given to subtlety, Derrick Brooks stepped out of character a bit on Sunday with the same degree of adroitness that he demonstrated in stepping in front of the Trent Green pass which he intercepted and returned for a touchdown in the Pro Bowl.
"I guess that one was for all of the people who feel like I've lost a step," Brooks told ESPN.com, winking at a reporter, as they both chuckled at the irony of his statement. "Hope they liked it."
There was a semi-veiled message there from the game's most valuable player, of course, and one with far-reaching implications.
The Tampa Bay Bucs' 11-year veteran, making his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, is a man some have suggested is facing an uncertain future because of his 2006 salary cap status and advancing years. But in the NFC's 23-17 victory here Sunday evening, in a mistake-fraught game that could have been dubbed "Pardon the Interception" had the ESPN Original Entertainment division gotten its hands on the broadcast, the 32-year-old Brooks showed there should be no doubts about his continuing ability to perform at a high level.
And he made it very clear that, exorbitant salary cap figure or not, Bucs officials need to do everything possible to ensure he finishes his career with the team that selected him in the first round of the 1995 draft. So did his Bucs teammate, cornerback Ronde Barber, who has salary issues of his own that will be a part of Tampa Bay's offseason maneuverings.
"It's obvious what he means to the franchise," Barber said. "He's the heart and soul. It wouldn't be the same without him around."
The annual all-star game here was hardly the same free-wheeling contest, either, that the fans have come to expect in recent years. The 40 points generated by the two squads represented the fewest since the 1999 game, in which the clubs combined for just 33 points. Neither team totaled 300 yards on offense and the 265 yards on interception returns was five more yards than the AFC rung up and only 14 fewer yards than the NFC eked out.
But in a game that featured 10 turnovers, and in which all four touchdowns scored came either as a result of or following takeaways, Brooks authored arguably the biggest play. With the score tied at 10 deep into the third quarter, Brooks jumped in front of a Green pass intended for tight end Antonio Gates, snatched the ball, then zig-zagged 59 yards for the touchdown.
Along the way, his somewhat serpentine path to the end zone carried Brooks past three would-be tacklers, and the feint he used to navigate past a sprawling Green showed plenty of elusiveness. There is plenty of life left in his legs, Brooks reminded the few reporters gathered around his stall in a quickly emptying locker room, and those ready to begin shoveling dirt on his career might hold off a while longer.
The NFC was in man-to-man coverage underneath on third-and-7 from its 48-yard line, and Brooks was essentially a free defender on the play. He reacted to one move made by the other tight end in the lineup, Tony Gonzalez, then noticed Gates hooking up in the seam behind him, and got under the route. Green acknowledged he never saw Brooks.
It was, not surprisingly, a cagey play by one of the premier defenders of this era, and a classic moment for one of the NFL's classiest gentlemen. It was the kind of play to which his younger teammates typically look to Brooks to make, even in an all-star game, and even when many of the teammates know the future Hall of Fame performer primarily by reputation.
"It's pretty appropriate," allowed Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher, who had one of the NFC's four interceptions, including one of the three pilfers off Peyton Manning. "During the week, you could just see younger guys gravitating to [Brooks], because of who he is and what he means to the game. He's a class act. It's like being around a football encyclopedia."
Brooks added another volume to the encyclopedia with his efforts Sunday, winning his first Pro Bowl player of the game award, and added a new luxury vehicle to the family fleet as well. Far more important to the prideful Brooks, though, was the newest résumé entry. Coming off a 2005 season in which he predicted the Bucs would be considerably better than most pundits believed, and in which he registered a 10th consecutive campaign with 100-plus tackles (raising his career total to 1,400), he sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when some of the league's young, athletic linebackers are discussed.
The fact he showed Sunday that he can hang with the kids, and can make game-altering plays, brought a wide smile to the face of Brooks, who expects that his contractual situation will somehow come to a satisfactory resolution that keeps him in Tampa Bay, likely for the rest of his career.
"I don't care what game you're playing, you've got to be playing to win, right?" Brooks said. "And if you're playing to win, then it's big plays that are usually going to win for you. So, yeah, I love big, game-changing plays like that one today. And I love showing people I'm still capable of making them when it counts. I like sending a message."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.