It's an unusually cool Florida this season, even for Winter; and it gets me teased for football as I feel like its ready to start again. Then I hear draft talk and I realize we have to endure the sweltering heat and the crack of Rays bats first before we can even think about walking up those turnstiles at Raymond James.
The RayJay was open for a good half-season before I made it up into the stands; the first loss for the Minnesota Vikings of the 1998 season to be exact, and I stared around in amazement at this new marvel that was going to be 'home' for the next quarter century or more. Still, something was missing.
The 'Ye Mystic Krew' Buccaneer wall of fame, splattered above some concessions, was no longer there. The cracks in the shiny concrete that used to guide me to my seat; gone. This is the feeling you get when a team you've rooted for all your life into adulthood vanishes and changes its colors.
Like everyone else you adapt, and even jump in. It didn't matter to me that Red had taken over, I could still see the Orange stripes and outlines around the numbers. They were landmarks for my memories of Bell, Wilder, and even Rhett. The scoreboard changed to; not the one on the side of the stadium, but the one on the bottom of the screen. Suddenly the numbers favored the local team more often, and it didn't matter if Pewter was added to the color scheme, Tampa Bay 13 Detroit 6 was all that really needed to be said!
You rarely vanquish your demons without a little bit of controversy; defense has always been the way of Tampa Bay. We've had more Pro-Bowl caliber linebackers than we know what to do with, yet only Doug Williams remains as a distant memory of what a franchise Quarterback should be. The Defense that just couldn't find a cool nickname was able to keep teams below 10 points, and still that would sometimes not be enough for an offense that couldn't find the first down marker with Magellan's aid, much less Trent Dilfer's. It threatened to tear the team apart, and by 2001 our best defensive player; Warren Sapp, knew as much. He made it clear that if something didnt happen, the team would be torn apart and a fresh start would ensue. He was right.
When the Chucky dolls came to town, the Sports Illustrated cover was like something out of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post; Local boy comes home. Make no mistake, the Tony Dungy era had ended. Nearly half the offensive roster was turned over. Free agents acquired at a time when they are supposed to be; when a squad needs to get over a hump. Starting recievers went from Keyshawn, Green and Williams, to Keyshawn, McCardell and Jurevicius. Tight Ends made the biggest change: From Dave Moore and Todd Yoder, to Ken Dilger and Ricky Dudley. The Bucs ran through the regular season like never before to the tune of twelve wins: and car doors were still empty.
Maybe the specter of losing to Philadelphia for 2 consecutive years and 4 consecutive games in those two years had taken its toll on local rooters. No one looked at the new scheduling and saw the path the Bucs endured to get to 12-4?
That old stadium that housed so many Orange memories bustled with fans for so many years, but double digit seasons of double digit losses consumed the fan base down to a precious few. That number amplified during the Dungy Years as hopes grew, but no one could predict the proliferation of Bucs fans that would occur after Ronde Barber ran down the Vet with the hopes and dreams of the Bay area tucked away in his arms. Car doors were no longer doors, they were canvases for Red, Pewter, and flags of all kind. Buddies who made fun of me for being a Bucs fan were wearing fresh new grey T-shirts, "supporting" the local team. Buccaneer City was getting overpopulated, and it was great! And it was way overdue.
Super Bowl Sunday gave way to a parade, and in time a farewell to Bucs heroes Sapp and Lynch. It was then I noticed how dull the canvas had gotten. On my way to work, listening to talk of how we joined the many teams that suffered a losing season after a World Championship, that I noticed the first faded car door.
The paint was no longer shiny, the gloss was gone. And it left behind an imprint that carries over with me to this very day. That silhouette of a dreamy Bucs season was now reduced to a dull imprint where clean paint once was.
And it looked like a flag had been there once.