IRVING (AP) – Keith Brooking is one of those warrior-type linebackers, from his intense pre-game speeches to the smeared eye black running down his cheeks.
He’s also 35 and nearing the end of his 13th season in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys relied on him more than usual at the start of this season and his constant presence on the injury report indicates he’s wearing down.
Brooking disagrees. He figures he’s got at least two good years left, insisting that anyone who watches film of him this season will see that he can still play.
“The eye in the sky doesn’t lie,” he said, offering one of his favorite phrases. “If you watch it, if you know football, I think the opinions on the outside would be the same way. We’ll see where it goes.”
First things first, though.
On Sunday, Brooking will play in his 158th straight game, second among active linebackers. The only person ahead of him is London Fletcher, who will be appearing in No. 206 in a row on the very same field when Brooking and the Cowboys face the Washington Redskins.
“My streak? Come on now,” said Brooking, who last missed a game in 2000. “If it ends this week, it’ll be forgotten on Monday. We’re not talking 290-something, 300 games like Brett Favre.”
Brooking laughed and acknowledged he’s proud of having lasted as long as he has. Knowing how hard it’s been makes Fletcher’s feat even more impressive to him.
They both entered the league in 1998, Brooking as a first-round pick by Atlanta and Fletcher a rookie free agent who made St. Louis. That made them division rivals, so they got to admire each other’s work and monitor their progress for years. Brooking still keeps up with Fletcher; after all, that eye in the sky doesn’t lie.
“He hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves for what he’s done in this league,” Brooking said. “I talk about consistency a lot and he defines that every week. Turn on the film — you watch that guy, he’s all over the place. You admire guys like that, you pull for guys like that. You want them to be successful except when you play them.”
Brooking is easy to root for, too, because of his passion. However, No. 51 doesn’t appear in as many highlights as he did last season, his first in Dallas, when he became an instant fan favorite and his pre-game frenzy became must-see TV.
The Cowboys knew he wasn’t a long-term answer at inside linebacker, so they drafted Sean Lee in the second round this year. Injuries slowed Lee at first, and he had trouble winning a big enough role in coach Wade Phillips’ scheme. That also was why Dallas relied on Brooking so much in the early months, even while starting 1-7.
Then Phillips was fired and Lee’s playing time went up. He had two interceptions in a victory over Indianapolis and was named the NFC defensive player of the week. Brooking also has been getting rest more regularly during the middle of the week, missing at least the hard-hitting Wednesday workouts to rest a foot injury.
He realizes it’s probably part of a transition that could result in Lee starting next season and Brooking moving on to another team.
“I feel like I can contribute to a team next year,” he said. “That doesn’t all fall on me, though. … This is a game that can be taken away from you in an instant, without me being too old and thinking I can’t play. That’s just the nature of this game. You play it long enough, you realize a lot of things are out of your control. That’s why you don’t ever take it for granted and you lay it on the line every day. God willing, you lay your head down at night and go to sleep. You wake up the next day and do the same thing. That’s the only way you can do it.”
Whenever Brooking retires, he’d like for it to be on his own terms.
But he knows it doesn’t always work out that way for warrior-types like himself. Guys keep thinking they can play until no team agrees.
“It’s just the way we’re made up — as men, as players,” he said. “It’s part of what’s gotten every guy in this locker room here and made this team. Football is very high up on my priority list. But football doesn’t define me. I’m prepared. I’ve been blessed. I have no regrets.”
He also expects to have a second career — in sports media. He jokes about taking reporters’ jobs when he retires.
“It’s all in due time,” he said, smiling. “Y’all don’t get too nervous right now.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)