- Inducted: 2007
- Wide Receiver: 1992-98
- Height: 6-0; Weight: 180
- College: South Carolina, 1988-91
Years selected to an all-pro first team: 1995
Robert Brooks was prematurely handed the mantle of being the Packers' No. 1 receiver, and then he had to prematurely pass it on. But in between, he enjoyed a prolific 23-game run where he broke Sterling Sharpe's single-season, team record for most yards receiving with 1,497 and tied an NFL record for longest pass reception, a 99-yard touchdown at Chicago on Sept. 11, 1995.
Drafted in the third round in 1992, Brooks started just one game and caught only 12 passes as a rookie. A year later, he served as the No. 3 receiver and caught 20 passes, while also displaying big-play potential by leading the NFL with a 26.6-yard average on 23 kickoff returns. Additionally, Brooks finished strong by returning two punts for 43 yards in a 28-24 NFC Wild Card playoff victory over Detroit; and then busting out with 134 all-purpose yards, including three receptions for 39 yards highlighted by an acrobatic 13-yard touchdown catch, in a loss to Dallas in a divisional playoff.
It was enough for Packers wide receivers coach Jon Gruden to predict big things for Brooks before the 1994 season. "We expect him to have a dynamite year for us," said Gruden. "He's probably the most highly conditioned athlete on our team, so we have to assume he's going to be durable. He's 175 but he plays 195."
That year, Brooks won a starting job and finished with 58 catches for 648 yards, an 11.2 average, although he was overshadowed by Pro Bowl teammate Sharpe.
When Sharpe suffered a career-ending neck injury at the end of that season, Brooks replaced him as the team's flanker, or featured receiver, and led the Packers with 102 receptions for his record-breaking 1,497 yards, a 14.7 average, and 13 touchdowns. He finished eighth in the NFL in receptions and fifth in yards. He also set a team record with nine games of 100 or more receiving yards.
At that point, heading into the 1996 season, Brooks appeared to be on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite receivers. "We've timed him and he'll run like a 4.6 or a 4.5, so he doesn't have the speed like some of the guys we have, but I think he just plays fast," said Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis. "When he comes off the line of scrimmage, he comes off full speed in three steps and he really gets on the DBs. He's a very tough young man. I mean he'll take a hit and he's right back up. He doesn't have any fear."
Despite suffering a concussion on the first offensive play of the Packers' fifth game, Brooks got off to another good start, ranking fifth in the league with a 15-yard average on his 23 catches through six games.
Then, on the first offensive play of an Oct. 14, Monday night showdown against San Francisco, Brooks tore his anterior cruciate ligament, his medial collateral ligament, meniscus cartilage and patellar tendon in his right knee, throwing a block on the opposite side of the field on a running play. On top of all that, he also broke a large chunk of his femur or thigh bone.
While it was a significant loss, the Packers overcame it and won their first Super Bowl in 29 years. Far worse, it was a horrific injury and left Brooks' career in jeopardy.
"We've seen anterior cruciates come back before and we've seen the patellar tendon come back before, but never the two together," Packers athletic trainer Pepper Burruss said after Brooks' surgery.
Remarkably, Brooks returned to start 15 of 16 regular-season games in 1997 and finish with 60 catches, 1,010 yards, seven touchdowns and a career-best 16.8 yards per catch. It was enough to earn him the NFL's "Comeback Player of the Year" award from the Pro Football Writers of America. What's more, Brooks started in three postseason games, including Super Bowl XXXII, and besides catching seven passes for 73 yards, he returned five punts for a 14.8 average and became the NFL's all-time postseason leader with a 15.3 punt return average.
"He has made the greatest recovery I've ever seen in my 20 years as a trainer," Burruss gushed at the time.
In the summer of 1998, Brooks underwent surgery for a herniated disk in his lower back, which was probably a consequence of him altering his stride after his knee injury. He made it back for the opener and started and played in 12 games, but he also played in pain for most of the season and finished with 31 receptions to rank fifth on the team.
When the pain persisted in training camp the next summer, following another operation on his back, Brooks announced his retirement on Aug. 2, 1999, at age 29. He attempted a comeback with Denver in 2000, but it lasted four games.
In seven seasons with the Packers, Brooks caught 306 passes for 4,225 yards, a 13.8 average. He also averaged 8.8 yards on 67 punt returns and 24.3 yards on 51 kickoff returns. He scored 32 touchdowns on pass receptions and three on returns.
But perhaps Brooks' lasting legacy will be that he, more than anyone, popularized the "Lambeau Leap," one of the most genuine of the Packers' many cherished traditions. It became part of his routine during his 13-touchdown, 1995 season.
Born June 23, 1970. Given name Robert Darren Brooks.