Joe Henderson: It’s time to enshrine James Wilder in the Buccaneer Ring of Honor

Even on Tampa Bay teams that were routinely awful, Wilder played with excellence and drive.
Published May 22

No one who watched Ronde Barber play football 16 seasons for the Buccaneers can have an issue with the team’s recent decision to put him in the Ring of Honor.

Excellent choice.

No Tampa Bay fan will forget his 92-yard interception return for a touchdown at Philadelphia that put the Bucs in the Super Bowl. That was one shining moment in a career that had many of them. Ronde is an all-pro human being as well, a class act off the field.

His locker was a must-visit spot for reporters covering the games back in the day.

He always had something insightful to say that we could share with readers. Ronde was patient, respectful, and understood as well as anyone the responsibility that comes with being a team leader.

But after the confetti is swept up from Ronde’s enshrinement, I have another suggestion. There is a player from even farther back in the day whose time must come soon.

James Wilder.

Let him in.

He is the Bucs’ all-time leading rusher by nearly 1,000 yards. Wilder was a complete back for teams that often were anything but complete. In 1984, he carried 407 times, an average of 43 times a game. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor singled out Wilder as one of the toughest backs he had ever opposed.

It’s not just the numbers, either — although they are impressive.

It was how hard he played for some gosh-awful teams.

Did I say awful?

The Bucs had only two winning seasons in the nine seasons Wilder toiled for them. Incredibly, there were seasons during Wilder’s stay in Tampa Bay where the Bucs won only two games.

In the 1984 season where he logged all that work, the Bucs were just 6-10.

Don’t blame him for that. Most of those games were lost causes, but Wilder threw his body around anyway because that’s what professionals do.

You may ask why this column isn’t on the sports page.

I’ll tell you.

Sports is interwoven into the fabric of this community beyond just the games. It’s part of who we are.

We have the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway to honor the life on and off the field of the original Buccaneer. Next month, a statue of Lee Roy will be unveiled in downtown Tampa.

A park is named for baseball icon Al Lopez, El Señor. The park where Lou Piniella played while growing up bears his name. A statue of Lightning founder Phil Esposito stands at the entrance to Amalie Arena.

Tony Dungy, well, we could name the city after him.

And there is the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.

Barber will be the 13th name to grace the ring. The memories flood back when you gaze upon those names.

Lee Roy, John McKay, Jimmie Giles, and Doug Williams transport us back to 1979 and the “worst to first” Buccaneers that powered to the NFC Championship Game.

Barber, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, and Jon Gruden take us to the Super Bowl team. Mike Alstott was part of that. If I close my eyes, I can see him wearing down opposing defenders to exhaustion and finally running over them to a game-clinching touchdown.

Paul Gruber, like Wilder, showed what it meant to excel despite playing for hopeless teams.

Owner Malcolm Glazer was more than a ruthless businessman. The image of him and Gruden as they received the Lombardi Trophy after winning the Super Bowl is an iconic snapshot in time.

That brings us back to Wilder.

Considering the Bucs’ lengthy playoff drought that’s not expected to end this year, it seems like a fitting time to give him the proper honor. Even when games and seasons were lost, Wilder played with excellence and drive.

And always, he played with honor.

It’s time. Put him in.