Best part of Bucs win came after the locker room doors closed
The best 79 seconds of the Bucs 23-20 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday did not occur between the white lines, but rather played out behind the closed doors of the celebratory visitor’s locker room at the Georgia Dome.
A video released by the team, which was picked up ESPN, NBC and all the alphabet cartels before going viral on social media, captures all that is right about the National Football League, football and maybe team sports in general.
“I thought what you saw in that locker room is what was real,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. “Unscripted.’’
After Smith, circled by players, praised his team for their preparation and persistence in winning a tough division game on the road, he called on Logan Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowl guard who at age 33 is in his 11th season, to address the team.
Mankins walked directly to linebacker Kwon Alexander, a 21-year-old rookie linebacker who had played the game of his life despite a heavy heart. Alexander had 11 tackles, forced and recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass, just two days after learning his teenage brother had been shot to death during a fight in their Alabama hometown.
Mankins put his left arm around Alexander’s shoulder and his right hand on his shoulder pad as the former LSU star sobbed into a towel. “What this guy did here today guys, that’s something special,’’ Mankins said, as teammates clapped. “Here’s the game ball.’
“To play under those circumstances, my hat’s off. And to play the way you did. Two turnovers, man, I got a lot of respect for what you did today.’’
“We all do!’ Smith said. Teammates pulled Alexander in a circle, embraced him and rubbed his head. “Proud of you Kwon. We love you!’ they said.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston shouted, “We’re a family. One team! One heartbeat!’’
Smith continued. “Hey guys. Remember this feeling men! Remember this feeling! This is the way is supposed to be after every game. We’re going to start streaking now. Another good one coming up next week.’’
Then Mankins, wiping his eyes and still holding onto Alexander, added, “That’s the commitment we need from everyone.’’
There are a lot of troubling things about the NFL, the debilitating injuries, a small percentage of players who make headlines for being charged with domestic abuse, DUIs and other embarrassments to the NFL shield.
But what is it about the game that can enable a young black linebacker from Alabama feel like the brother of a white, veteran offensive lineman from northern California after knowing each other only six months?
“When you’re part of a team, we talk about being part of a tribe where you’re really connected,’’ Smith said. “And when you go through some of the things, the different emotions, if you’re not part of the team, the games move on, you’re upset if we don’t win, if we win you’re excited.
"That picture of the sideline afterward. When you’re invested that much in the group, it is a drug in a way, that you need and you want the rest of your life.’’
Football is a grind, more pain than pleasure. It’s torn knee ligaments, painkilling shots, dropped balls and thrown interceptions, vomiting in the summer training camp workouts under an unforgiving sun. And yet there is the thrill of running out of the tunnel of a sold out stadium, the deafening roar of the crowd on autumn Sundays when touchdowns are scored and quarterbacks sacked.
But it’s also living with the fear that there might never be anything in life to equal the intoxication of playing a kid’s game for a living. Above all else, it’s a brotherhood. You mess with one man, you’ve got us all. The boys of fall.
“The offensive linemen and linebackers don’t hang out and go to dinner each night or anything. But sometimes when you go through something like Kwon is going through, for him to find out just how much he really means to the group and Logan asked me if he could do that,’’ Smith explained. “And it just wasn’t Logan, of course, he handed the ball to him. But all of his teammates were feeling for him the entire game.''
Smith was asked if Alexander’s performance, and his teammate’s support during a family tragedy, might galvanize the players this season.
“Before any of this happened, it was a close team and the team doesn’t need anything else to bring them closer,’’ Smith said. “Just sometimes as a man, you don’t let it out how you feel about someone always. It’s no more than that. I don’t think this team can get any closer. They like each other. They know there’s a responsibility you feel to do your job for your teammate. So I think we’re already there.’’
Having peeled back the curtain, it’s on tape for all to see.