When the Bucs were bad, T-shirt idea brought in the bucks

TAMPA

Think wide ties and polyester, orange uniforms and a sombrero-shaped stadium.

Think weekly humiliation as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-26 in their two inaugural seasons.

Thom Stork was a young man then, enduring the weekly send-up of the Bucs on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show monologue.

He and Busch Gardens co-workers Rod Caborn and Rick Hensler longed to do something, anything, to ease the pain.

Stork can't say precisely how they got the idea to sell T-shirts to celebrate the team's awfulness. He suspects alcohol was involved.

"We waited for them to lose the first game in 1977," said Stork, now chief executive officer at the Florida Aquarium. "Then we said, 'That's it. They're terrible. Let's go and do this.' "

The team's current 0-7 record, coupled with Sunday's "throwback" game that will have the Bucs wearing their original orange jerseys, have a lot of people recalling those days.

During that dismal 1977 season, Stork and his friends thought they could have some fun with T-shirts. They did their homework and checked the rules. They couldn't mention the Bucs by name or the National Football League. They settled on the phrase "Go For O" and checked to see if anyone else had claimed it.

"Believe it or not, I have a telegram from the patent office," said Stork, 61, who keeps a thick scrapbook of the venture.

Each partner put up about $150. They took out quarter-page ads in both local newspapers.

"This tells you something about the times," Stork said. "I put my personal address, my home address and home phone number in the ads. I was living in Forest Hills and I was selling these out of my house."

It gets better. The men got peddler's licenses, and two of them brought their young sons to Tampa Stadium each Sunday to help sell the shirts out of little red wagons.

They sent one to Carson. "He used it on the show." Stork said. They sent one to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "They put it in the Bucs display."

They even sent one to then-coach John McKay. "The story goes that he wadded it up and threw it away."

Of course, even McKay couldn't resist a wisecrack at the Bucs' expense. A reporter once asked if he could say something positive about their game. "I thought we ran onto the field smartly," he said. When asked about the execution of his offensive line, McKay responded, "I'm in favor of it."

Stork insists they were in it for fun, not money. They sold about 5,000 of the $5 shirts and invested all their money into, well, more shirts.

Deep into the second season, when the Bucs had lost 11 straight games, the trio decided to go for extra yardage.

Why not fly a "Go for O" banner over the stadium? they wondered. A pilot said he'd do it for about $300.

"We didn't want to do it if they were winning," Stork said. So they put the pilot on standby. "We met up at the end of the third quarter, when they were down by 10," he said. "I went to a pay phone and said, 'Let's do it.' "

But nothing lasts forever.

On Dec. 11, 1977, the Bucs beat the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans. The following week, the Bucs bested the St. Louis Cardinals.

The press went bonkers. Stork told a reporter, "We're out of business. I feel certain of that."

Good thing they had their day jobs.

As the years passed, the three left Busch Gardens and went their separate ways.

Caborn worked in the cruise business and tourism marketing. Hensler went to Universal Studios, then the motion picture industry.

Stork was at SeaWorld for a while. Today he heads the Florida Aquarium, overseeing a $14 million budget and 675,000 visits a year.

Now living in Lutz, he's a grandfather and a Bucs season ticket holder who will be wearing orange for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.

Given the Bucs' record, people have asked if it's time for another T-shirt campaign.

"Today, you could Twitter it," Stork said. "You could Facebook it." But it wouldn't be like before. Few things are.

"We were a bunch of 20-somethings running theme parks," Stork mused. Now he has neither the time nor the energy to hawk shirts from a wagon, he said.

"This is just a warm spot in our history."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602.

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When the Bucs were bad, T-shirt idea brought in the bucks 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 10:15pm]

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