ATLANTA — Before he could finish his first sentence, Keith Brooking’s eyes filled with tears.
Saying goodbye to Atlanta would be more difficult than he expected.
Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl pick in his 11 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, said Wednesday he had no regrets and no hard feelings after signing a three-year deal worth about $6 million with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Falcons offered less money for Brooking to remain with his only NFL home as a backup.
Instead, after 15 years in Atlanta, including four years at Georgia Tech, Brooking is making a new start at 33.
Even though he didn’t hesitate to sign the free-agent deal with the Cowboys and spoke with enthusiasm about the chance to win a Super Bowl in Dallas, Brooking couldn’t hide the emotions that came with his decision.
Brooking had to pause after managing a thank you to Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who was generous in his introduction of the linebacker at the news conference.
His voice breaking, Brooking had to stop to gather himself after mentioning his family, who attended the news conference. Finally, he stopped himself again and looked away after saying he was happy to be leaving the Falcons "on very solid ground."
At that point even Brooking’s agent, Pat Dye Jr., had to wipe his eyes.
Dye said "tears were flowing down my face" when he helped Brooking prepare his statement "because I knew what he was feeling."
As a rookie, Brooking helped lead the 1998 Falcons to their only Super Bowl, but he mentioned the team’s 11-5 2008 playoff season when asked his favorite memory with the team. He led the 2008 team with 102 total tackles, including 71 solo stops, in his eighth straight season starting every game.
"I think this past year for sure, it makes me feel very good inside to know I’m leaving this franchise and they’re on very solid ground," Brooking said, adding the team’s "future is very bright" with quarterback Matt Ryan.
"Being a part of that foundation and setting the stage for that is a memory I’ll always take with me," he said.
Brooking said he is looking for more team success in Dallas.
"Obviously, when you’re an 11-year veteran and you don’t have a ring, some hardware on your finger, that’s one of your main goals," he said. "I can’t think of anything else I want to do besides that. Going to a team like Dallas, I think they’re primed and ready for that run."
Brooking said he also signed with Dallas to be reunited with Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, his former defensive coordinator in Atlanta.
"Two of my most productive years were with Wade," he said. "I’m very comfortable in that scheme. That makes an easy transition for me."
Brooking, who made frequent position changes as the Falcons changed head coaches and defensive coordinators, expects to be able to start at middle linebacker, his favorite spot, in Dallas.
Brooking, who grew up in southern suburbs of Atlanta, noted he had been playing football in the area for 27 years, beginning with youth leagues. He was the Falcons’ first-round pick in 1998 and was the only remaining member of the Super Bowl team. Brooking wore No. 56 at Georgia Tech and with the Falcons, but will wear No. 51 in Dallas, according to Dye. Linebacker Bradie James wears No. 56 in Dallas.
"Keith will always be a Falcon in our hearts," Blank said. "We wish him success in Dallas. ... There are only a handful of players you can put on a poster and say ‘This is what an NFL player should be like.’ Keith is one of those players."
Said Brooking: "This has been a great ride."