Me: We should try to sneak into the hotel and get some autographs.
Training Camp, 2006.
Setting: The Tavern at Celebration, Orlando, Florida.
Characters: Me (Paul Mueller), Josh Bidwell, a Police Officer, a reasonably good-looking female bartender and Doug Williams.
Four of my friends and I traveled to training camp and stayed overnight so we could catch two days of action. After practice on the first day, we got a tip that the players stayed at the hotel at Celebration, and it would be a great place to get autographs because the players usually go out near the hotel at night. We had dinner at the Tavern at Celebration later that evening, anticipating running into some Buccaneer players.
Since we were on a mini-vacation, we splurged and had the lobster at the tavern. Whole, Maine lobsters. If I told you it was awful, I’d be lying. It was the best lobster I have ever tasted. Not that I’m a seafood aficionado or anything, I’ve just never had better lobster. My friend, JJ, who is likely more educated on the lobster subject, agreed. Then, after a couple of pitchers of whatever my three comrades were drinking, I had an idea.
My friends are immediately on board. Eavesdroppers roll their eyes and look away. The reasonably good-looking female bartender laughs.
Reasonably good-looking female bartender (laughing): If you guys sneak into the hotel, I’ll buy you a round of shots.
I slap my hand on the bar top.
Me: Game on.
We pay our tab and walk about 300 yards to the hotel. It’s about 6 p.m. and not quite dusk. Facing the hotel, it’s shaped like a squared-off horseshoe pointing at us. It's a white, colonial-style hotel with lush, colorful shrubbery. On the left point, there is an emergency exit that rests at the bottom of a staircase.
After hopping the fence and walking around the back of the hotel, I come across a set of glass double doors to a conference room. I bend down and peek through. It’s the defensive meetings. Monte Kiffin is conducting the meeting, with Jon Gruden at his side. Directly in front of me are Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber. Out of fear of being spotted, I retreat past the pool and back to my friends outside the hotel.
From a distance, as I contemplate an angle of attack on the hotel, I see Buccaneer punter Josh Bidwell walk out the side door, propping it open with a brick so he can re-enter. Meetings must be over. Once he walks away, the coast is clear.
With my vintage, creamsicle Bucco Bruce helmet in hand, one of my friends and I head for the door. Nonchalantly, acting like we’re supposed to be there, we walk inside and up to the second floor.
The player’s names are posted on each door; however, the second floor appears to be the management floor, with few names I recognize. Then, posted on one door, I see a familiar name, and feel like I have stumbled upon gold.
I peer down at my old-school Bucs helmet, thinking, "This is perfect".
I knock on the door. Quickly, as if expecting me, Williams answers wearing a pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt. He's on the telephone. He tells the person on the other end to hold on.
Doug Williams: Can I help you?
Me: Excuse me, Mr. Williams, I don’t mean to bother you, but I was hoping you’d have a moment to sign this helmet for me.
Doug Williams: How’d you get up here?
Me: Someone left the side door open. We snuck in.
Doug Williams: You know what? You guys beat the system . . . I like that. Yea, I’ll sign your helmet, but I’ll have to escort you out.
Me: No problem, Mr. Williams.
He grabs the helmet.
Doug Williams: You got a pen?
I search my pockets frantically.
Me: Awww, you know what? I don’t . . .
Doug Williams: I’ll tell you what: Look for me tomorrow at practice. You’ll be out there, right? I’ll sign some stuff for you then. Okay?
I agree and he escorts us down the very stairs we came up. A police officer is outside, but Williams assures him there is no problem and the cop disregards the mishap.
I begin to think, "There’s no way we’re gonna find him tomorrow, and if we do, he’s gonna be too busy to take care of us." So, there was only one thing to do: Sneak back in. I went to the car and retrieved a Sharpie. After making sure it worked, I crept back in the same side door, up the same flight of stairs and knocked on Williams’s door for a second time. At this point, it’s been about 20 minutes since the first interaction.
Williams answers, still on the telephone. He tells the person on the other end to hold on.
Doug Williams: You, again?
Me: Mr. Williams, I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have a Sharpie this time. If you could please . . .
I hold out the helmet.
Me: I’ll escort myself out.
Williams looks at me for a moment and shakes his head in apparent disbelief.
Doug Williams: Okay, but you have to leave right away.
Me: You got it.
He signs the helmet, and I hold up my end of the bargain, walking right back down the stairs, triumphantly.
Outside the door is the same police officer. This time I am alone, and reprimanded. He gives me a citation and tells me I am no longer welcome at the hotel. If I am reprimanded in Celebration for any other reason, I will be arrested. He was kind of a jerk, but just doing his job, I guess.
I accepted the citation. I got what I came for.
I returned to my friends and we walked back to the tavern. We walked in and I set the helmet, freshly inked by Williams, on the bar top with enough force to draw the attention of people nearby.
Me: We’ll take four Washington Apples.
The reasonably good-looking female bartender was practically speechless.
Reasonably good-looking female bartender: Wow . . . you got it.
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure they were the best-tasting shots anyone has ever had. Ever. It was truly an historic trip, at least in my lifetime. A great time with some good friends that truly transcended fanhood and bordered insanity.
I have not been back to the hotel at Celebration since. I do, however, have the confidence that if I ever come across Doug Williams again, I could surely say, "Hey, remember the guy that snuck into the hotel at Celebration . . . twice . . . to get your autograph a few years ago?" Of course, he would remember, and I would triumphantly say, "Yea, that was me." In my mind, we’d have a good laugh like we were old buddies or something and go on our way.
A terrific moment in a great trip.
Training camp is some truly good fun, and I encourage everyone to experience it at some time in their life. While it may not be as wild and crazy as some I’ve been a part of, it’s always a great memory nevertheless, as me and my pal Doug Williams would surely agree.