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Brooking remains a foundation amidst Atlanta rubble

Aah, spring in Flowery Branch, Ga., where everything is fresh and new.

As the Atlanta Falcons begin a three-day mandatory minicamp Saturday, they'll have a new face (rookie quarterback Matt Ryan) and a new mind (courtesy of new coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff). But the one thing the Falcons did keep was their heart.

They kept Keith Brooking.

Some day, the middle linebacker will get his due. Maybe a few years down the road, Ryan, Smith and Dimitroff will stand around at Super Bowl media day and talk about the franchise's remarkable turnaround. They probably will talk about some rough times early on, and if there's any justice in the world, they'll talk about Brooking.

In the past year, Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino came pretty close to re-enacting Sherman's march through Georgia -- torching a fan base as Vick went to federal prison and Petrino to the University of Arkansas. In the past few months, the Falcons worked to bury just about every sign of the past, releasing popular running back
Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler and unloading disgruntled cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

It bothers me a little when people say we don't have leaders. I feel like I've been one for a long time. I've always tried to lead by example, and I don't mind being vocal.

--Keith Brooking

That's led to talk about the Falcons being a team without a leader, but that talk simply is wrong. The Falcons have, and have had, a wonderful leader. That's Brooking. He is the Atlanta Falcons.

The world just doesn't realize it yet. Having Brooking might be just as important as having Ryan. Brooking gives the Falcons credibility and stability in what's likely to be a rocky rebuilding process.

"It bothers me a little when people say we don't have leaders,'' Brooking said. "I feel like I've been one for a long time. I've always tried to lead by example and I don't mind being vocal."

More than ever, the Falcons need Brooking's leadership. Brooking points to veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, receiver Joe Horn and new running back Michael Turner as others he thinks will be leaders. Brooking sees offensive lineman Todd Weiner and Todd McClure as guys who have been in leadership roles for several years.

But none of them carries Brooking's weight or pedigree. Brooking, 32, has made five Pro Bowls in 10 seasons. As a second-year player in 1999, he was on Atlanta's only Super Bowl team. He grew up in Senoia, Ga., and played at Georgia Tech. He's passionate about Atlanta, where he's active in all sorts of charity ventures, and through all of last year's fiascos, Brooking kept believing in Falcons owner Arthur Blank and kept believing things would only get better.

Well, most of the time.

By nature, Brooking is one of the most positive people you'll ever meet. But as he drove to Flowery Branch on Friday morning to have a physical examination and attend a team meeting, Brooking talked on his cell phone, and for just a moment, the enthusiasm in his voice disappeared.

He talked about Petrino "quitting on the team" and the misery of a 4-12 season.

"The way everything transpired, I was so frustrated," Brooking said. "For the first time in my life, I'd drive to Flowery Branch and I wasn't looking forward to going to practice. I can't even begin to tell you how tough it is for me to admit that to you."

But the drive was fun again Friday. Brooking's voice picked back up as he talked about the arrival of Smith and Ryan.

"Coach Smith reminds me of Dan Reeves, who I came into the league under," Brooking said, referencing the former Falcons coach. "He develops a rapport with his players. We're grown men and you have to have that rapport. That's something we didn't have last year and it was a shame."

But mercifully, last year is over and there's hope again in Atlanta.

"Coach Smith hasn't mentioned last year one time," Brooking said. "He wasn't here and a lot of the guys who are here now weren't here. It's over and that's the best thing I can say about it."

Wisely, the Falcons are distancing themselves from the past. The offseason overhaul was massive. In a city that has never truly embraced the Falcons the way it has baseball's Braves or University of Georgia football, the team is reaching out to its fan base. In a move uncommon in NFL circles, four of the five minicamp practices will be open to the public, with free admission.

We've heard plenty about how Atlanta has gotten rid of all that's wrong with the Falcons. But maybe the best thing they've got going for them now is that they still have the one thing that was right with the Falcons.

Brooking's a realist and he knows his career is closer to the end than the beginning. (He's heading into the last year of his contract, but it's not a pressing concern.) But this minicamp is a new beginning, even for him, and Brooking has a pretty clear idea of what he thinks starts Saturday.

"I'll tell you something that's very near and dear to me," Brooking said. "I have a great relationship with Mr. Blank and I know his passion and desire to see the Falcons succeed. I know the city of Atlanta and how much the people deserve a winning team. There is nothing more I'd like to do than finish my career with the Falcons on solid ground."

That may take time, as Ryan develops and Smith and Dimitroff work to continue upgrading the roster. But, with Brooking, the transition will be eased. When it comes to leadership, the Falcons couldn't be on more solid ground.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.