Ten years ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave me one of the greatest moments of my life. On Sunday, the franchise will commemorate that moment with a tribute to the 2002 Super Bowl Champions.
I've told you folks that I have had season tickets since 1998 - but what I haven't told you is I've been going to Bucs games since 1977 (a year after the franchise was born). I was a wee pup then, just four years old when my grandfather (or Abeulo in my culture) took me with some of my uncles to see the Buccaneers in their final game of the season against the St. Louis Cardinals. It's ironic because my only memory of that game was that the fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts. Not because the Bucs won a championship but because they won their first home game...ever.
Such was the life of a Bucs fan in those day. As I grew up, my friends adopted the Cowboys or the Dolphins or the Bears. Some of them changed teams like you changed your underwear. Whomever was the hot team that season became their favorite team. For me, it was always the Bucs - and boy did I pay for it. I can't tell you how they made fun of my orange shirts with the winking pirate. How they called me Succaneers Boy and other not so nice names that called into question the sexual preference of our mascot.
I didn't care - I was from Tampa, born and raised and they were my team. My mother was a single mother and worked hard to make ends meet. She would scrape together whatever extra money she could to take me to a Bucs game or two. The more money she made, the more games we would go to.
Of course, the Bucs typically lost. They lost a lot throughout my childhood in the 80's. It was the same every season. I would tell my buddies - "This is the year the Bucs turn it around," and every year the team would lose 10 or more games. I hoped Ray Perkins was really Hugh Culverhouse's Vince Lombardi. I prayed that Richard Williamson was a better coach. I believed in Five-Dash-Two.
I remember vividly that tough opening game in 1996 when that very week there was a referendum on the Community Investment Tax that would build a new stadium for the Buccaneers. If it passed, we'd have a gleaming new football palace. If it failed - the Bucs were moving to Baltimore or Los Angeles.
I remember the newspapers and television stations saying that the game was the biggest in franchise history - if they lost, the fans may not care enough to vote to save the team. It was the first game under a new coach, a guy named Tony Dungy, and I remember leaving the stadium in tears as the Packers destroyed Tampa Bay 34-3. I was certain we had lost them. My Bucs...gone forever.
Of course the referendum past and a year later, Pewter Power was born, and the Bucs brought tears to my eyes again - making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. I still remember that bitterly cold day when the Lions came to the Old Sombrero - the last game at the Som, and the entire night it felt like a surreal experience. The Bucs - my Bucs - were in the playoffs...and WE WON. Mike Alstott bulldozed over the Lions defense and Sapp, Lynch and Brooks stuffed Barry Sanders (which would be for the last time as he quit after that game).
It was the beginning of the salad days for Buccaneer fans. Playoffs year in and year out and watching the maturation of Hall of Famers. Yet, with each playoff loss our frustration grew. 99 in the NFC title game against the Rams. 2000 in Philly. 2001 in Philly. I was probably one of the few totally against the firing of Tony Dungy.
I remembered what we were. After watching Dungy carrying his belongings out of old One Buc in a driving rain storm - I felt we were making just a terrible mistake. The coaching search began in earnest and it truly felt like the Keystone Kops were running it.
First, Bill Parcells took a look at our roster, realized the window was closing and jilted the Glazers just like he did Hugh Culverhouse a few years before. The Glazers kicked the tires of several college coaches who decided "Thanks, I'm good where I'm at." It stretched on and on until they settled their sights on Jon Gruden.
He was brash, he supposedly knew offense and he was going to leave Monte's defense alone. Yet we gave up a king's ransome for him. We mortgaged the future of the team for this little Napoleon with the scowling face.
2002 was a strange season. It was the first in the NFC South and everyone expected the Bucs to coast to an easy division victory with the dregs of New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina. The worst division in football. Week One, our newest division rival the New Orleans Saints came to town - and the Bucs lost.
This is what we paid for? Of course the Bucs would only lose three more times the rest of the regular season.
The Bucs earned the first round bye by heading to frigid Chicago and beating the Bears - the Bucs first victory under 32 degrees. They beat the Bears on field goals, 15-0.
After the bye week, San Francisco came to town and there were many who believed they were better. They weren't. The Bucs destroyed Jeff Garcia and the Niners 31-6.
Yet we all knew what came next. At Philadelphia in the final game at Veterans Stadium. They were blowing it up after the NFC Championship game. No one will admit it today but there were few who believed the Bucs would win that game.
I was a newlywed then, my wife and I were married the year before and we had a tiny little apartment in Northdale. I remember my tv was maybe 32 inches and I had no surround sound - it all came from the speakers on the tv. We muted the tv guys as we did for every road game - Mean Gene and Scot Brantley were better anyway. There was no high definition then - hell, there wasn't even widescreen.
The game started off as so many others in Philly had. The Eagles returned the opening kickoff deep into Bucs territory - a play or two later, they were in the end zone. The Bucs offense responded with a decent drive, it got us a field goal but we still couldn't score on the Eagles.
The Bucs defense held the Eagles to a 3-and-out, but then Brad Johnson threw it to an Eagle DB who returned it to the Tampa Bay 46.
Here we go, I thought.
The Bucs defense stiffened and forced a punt and the Eagles pinned the Bucs at their own goal line.
Then it happened. The play that changed my life.
You Go Joe, You Go!
The words echoed through my tiny apartment as we exploded in cheers. A few moments later...
Alstott up the gut - TOUCHDOWN TAMPA BAY!
At that moment, for the first time in my life - I believed - truly in my bones believed the Bucs were headed to the Super Bowl.
Yet the Eagles wouldn't cooperate. Down by 10 and driving deep into Tampa Bay territory with still plenty of time to go - a touchdown or a field goal, a stop on defense - anything could happen.
Then the play that turned me into a sobbing baby secured it for all time. To this day, the play makes me misty-eyed. Thinking about it, watching NFL films replays or my DVD of that game. Every time the emotions come back and tears stream down my cheeks.
2002 NFC Championship Game Buccaneers Eagles America's Game (via jcdelatorre1973)
Ronde Barber's interception for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game will forever be my greatest sports memory.
We cried, we hugged, we screamed - we were going to the Super Bowl.
GO HOME EAGLE FAN! THE BUCS ARE HEADED TO SAN DIEGO!
As soon as the final seconds ticked off - we piled into my little car and headed to the stadium. We didn't know what was going to happen down there - we just wanted to be part of it - whatever it was. We honked horns, we screamed (some crazy people ran out into the middle of Dale Mabry) then we waited for the team to get home. And waited...and waited. We didn't know that the a-holes that worked at the Philly airport had delayed the team from getting home.
But we still waited and eventually we cheered our boys as they wearily stood on the makeshift stage outside Ray Jay.
Sapp told us as he held up the NFC Championship Trophy, "This is great...but this ain't the one."
We didn't even know who the opponent was - we didn't care. When we eventually did discover it was Jon's old team, the Raiders - it seemed like perfect justice.
There was no way Jon Gruden was going to let us lose to the Raiders. To Al Davis. To Bill Callahan and Rich Gannon and all his old guys. No way.
People bought up the NFC Champions t-shirts like they were fine china. I refused. This is great....but this ain't the one.
The Super Bowl pre-game festivities were never a big deal for me. Something in the background while our party got going. That year was different. We watched every second, took in ever single morsel of analysis. It felt like the game would never arrive.
Then, after a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, the game was finally kicked off. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing in the Super Bowl. I could barely believe what I was witnessing.
We crushed them in the first half and the beat down continued into the third quarter...then suddenly, the Bucs cooled off and the Raiders began to rally. A 34-3 lead suddenly was 34-21.
Then - my favorite player - Mister Derrick Brooks sealed it.
THERE IT IS! THE DAGGER'S IN! WE'RE GOING TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL!
Super Bowl XXXVII Bucs Raiders America's Game (via jcdelatorre1973)
We headed back out to the Stadium again - this time they let us in and we partied to the early morning hours. The players brought the trophy around the stadium and fans could lean over the railing and touch it.
Chucky screamed for all the heavens, "You ain't seen nothin' yet, Tampa!"
All the years of ridicule and mockery came rushing back. The Yucks. The Pastel Footwipes from the Tropics. All of beatings and bad times we endured and now we were the kings of the world.
I will always have a special place in my heart for Jon Gruden, Warren Sapp, Brooks, Lynch, Alstott, Jurevicius and all the other Buccaneers who had made a young boy's dream become a reality.
I love that 2002 team like a family member and I can't wait to cheer them on Sunday...likely with tears in my eyes again.