TAMPA — The Sign Man, a fixture at Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games for 30 years, has died.
Dr. Russell Barner exhorted crowds with his hand-painted signs, usually conveying some kind of barb against the opposing team. He was the first Buccaneer fan to be inducted into a special fan's section of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"The Rams will sing the St. Louis Blues," he wrote on one sign when the team played the St. Louis Rams. When the Bucs played Miami: "Dolphin Meat for Sunday Brunch!" And Minnesota: "Send the Vikings to Valhalla!"
He led his section cheering first downs and fraternizing with other fan "characters" with names like Big Nasty, Pillow Lady, Beer Stud and Boneshaker.
He supported his team at away games, too, often by himself. As the team bus left 1 Buc Place, it would pass by the Sign Man, who always flashed words of encouragement.
As the team headed to Atlanta in 2000 to play the Falcons, Dr. Barner showed them a sign: "Dirty Birds: Take 'em to the cleaners!"
When it returned victorious, there he was in the headlights with a new sign: "Cleaned and pressed!"
He was always waiting, no matter how late, win or lose.
"Everybody always talked about it from the airport to the bus home — 'Is the Sign Man going to be there?' " asked Scot Brantley, 51, a Buccaneer for most of the 1980s. "Well, you know he'll be there. There's nowhere else he would be but right there."
Dr. Barner died Friday of prostate cancer. He was 66.
In 1998, with the Bucs headed to Cincinnati and clinging to playoff hopes, Dr. Barner showed up with a sign for the occasion: "The Fat Lady Ain't Sung Yet!!! I've Got Her Gagged & Bagged, In the Trunk of My Car."
From August at least through December, Dr. Barner started Sundays early. He and his wife, Kathy, pulled up to Lot 12, north of Raymond James Stadium, with a trailer full of gear first thing in the morning.
After hoisting several Bucs flags, Dr. Barner unpacked a grill and cooked breakfast for 20 or so tailgate regulars. He specialized in omelettes, boiled in Ziploc bags.
Dr. Barner grew up on a farm in Kansas, not far from childhood friend Kathy Walker. He attended St. John's Lutheran Junior College, where he lettered in four sports and lost touch with Kathy.
He married and divorced, moved to California and worked odd jobs. In 1971 he returned to Tampa and worked as a Hillsborough County deputy sheriff before undergoing chiropractic training.
"His bedside manner was that of an old-time country doctor," said chiropractor Steve Edelson, who practiced with Dr. Barner.
He was no more antagonistic with fans of other teams, including a new generation of full-blown "super fans" who have blossomed into characters in their own right.
The Hogettes have stopped by Lot 12 for a tailgate beer when the Redskins were in town. So has the Birdman, who follows the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Big Dog of the Cleveland Browns.
"They are good sports, too," said Kathy Walker Barner, 66, who heard from her old friend in 1998 and married him a year later. "It's friendly razzing, nothing violent."
Buccaneers players first dubbed Dr. Barner the "Sign Man" and came to expect him. John Lynch greeted him with a hug at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, won by the Bucs. When Dr. Barner missed a home game to accompany his wife on a business trip to Europe, Derrick Brooks got in his face about it later.
In 1998, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted Dr. Barner into a special display to recognize fans. The hall discontinued the Fans Hall of Fame after 2003 but left the names on display — until about a month ago when that came down, too, said Jason Aikens of the Hall of Fame.
As his cancer worsened, Dr. Barner found it harder to walk to the stadium or sit in the sun. He began to tailgate only, until he couldn't do that anymore.
Dr. Edelson, his business partner, marked the Sign Man's death with a sign of his own, now greeting motorists passing by on Bay-to-Bay Boulevard.
It reads, "We will miss you, Dr. Barner."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]