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It’s not personal, strictly business

Six-year-old Gina Marie Incandela was about to sing the national anthem Wednesday before the Rays first game of the spring when the big news reached Charlotte Sports Park. The Buccaneers released Derrick Brooks. There were others, but Brooks?

Talk about a fastball to the ribs.

Talk about a cloud over a fan base.

Talk about the end of an era and the start of another.

Say this about new general manager Mark Dominik and new head coach Raheem Morris, they’re not afraid to make bold moves.

Let’s be honest, we knew the day would come when Brooks was no longer a Buc. Maybe we thought it would be his decision. I’m sure he thought it would be his decision. But sometimes the best decisions are the ones made for you.

Brooks maintained this season that his game had not slipped, that he was still playing at the level he had during his first 10 Pro Bowl seasons. Then he made another Pro Bowl.

But Brooks was clearly not the Brooks we knew. He hadn’t been for the past two seasons, and it hurt watching him try to run down running backs during the season-ending four-game losing streak that defined the 2008 season.

Brooks was playing with one bad hamstring and then two. You probably winced a time or two while you watched Brooks run.

The man who came to define the weakside linebacker position in the NFL could no longer play on third downs.

The Bucs decided it was time to move on, which hurts when the moving on is done at the expense of a future Hall of Famer, but that just underscores the nature of the NFL. It’s a business.

The Bucs also released Warrick Dunn, Cato June, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway.

It’s no surprise to see Hilliard, Galloway and Dunn go.

Dunn was a special player during his first tenure with the Bucs, but he didn’t have much of an impact last season. Hilliard was a good possession receiver. Galloway was hurt, then lost his job to Antonio Bryant.

None of those four will be missed. Brooks, despite the way his game slipped the past two seasons, will be missed.

He will be missed because he was the last link to the Super Bowl team. Yes, Ronde Barber is still around, but for how long?

But Brooks and Warren Sapp defined that defense. They had help from Barber and John Lynch and others, but the Bucs had the best defense in the NFL, and Brooks and Sapp were their best players.

Those two helped transform the culture of the organization, from hapless losers to Super Bowl contenders, then to Super Bowl champions.

Sapp was a tad on the surly side. Brooks was the gentleman.

Brooks took school kids to Washington D.C., and Africa. He started a charter school.

Like Mike Alstott, his impact on the Tampa Bay area goes deeper than big hits on Sunday afternoons. That’s why his release is such a shock.

You kind of want players like Brooks to play forever, even though you know that’s impossible. And when the end comes, whether he retires now or tries to hang on for a few more years with another team, you can’t help but remember the good moments.

And no moment was better than the interception he returned for a touchdown against Oakland in the Super Bowl. It had to happen. The way the defense played that season? The way it played that night in San Diego? Brooks had to score.

And when he did, and when he cried as he came off the field, I think some of us cried a little, too.

It meant that much to Brooks to win a championship. It meant that much for us to see Brooks transform a franchise into a champion.

He’s gone now. It had to happen. But it is still somewhat shocking.

When you play like Derrick Brooks, the end is always sad.