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2002 Buccaneers: 10 years ago they put Tampa Bay on sports world map

Even now, you can hear the quiver in their voices as they speak of memories a decade old.

Even now, they speak around the lumps in their throats as they remember the players who were their legends, their champions and, yes, their neighbors. They talk of the game, that game of all games, and every precious moment of it. They remember how they drove aimlessly through the streets afterward, blowing horns, looking for someone to share their joy, and somehow winding up in the parking lot at Raymond James Stadium.

Fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers speak of Jan. 26, 2003, as if it were a living thing, a favorite relative who still stops by to visit from time to time. Maybe it is. In some ways, it is as if Derrick Brooks is still running up the sideline with the clinching interception, and Simeon Rice is still loose in the backfield, and Warren Sapp is still controlling the middle. Squint, and you can still see Keenan McCardell in the end zone. Listen, and you can hear the sound of Jon Gruden.

So many players, so many memories. There was John Lynch and Joe Jurevicius and Ronde Barber, Mike Alstott and Keyshawn Johnson and Monte Kiffin, Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith and Brad Johnson. Even now, fans speak of those Bucs as if they were Tampa Bay's founding fathers, which, in a way, they were.

There never has been a team like that, and there has never been a day like that. Not before. Not since. Maybe not ever again.

That was the day Tampa Bay arrived.

That was the day Tampa Bay conquered the world.

That was the day Tampa Bay will never forget.

Today, as the Bucs play against the Eagles (who else?), Tampa Bay will remember. After all, it was Philadelphia that the Bucs beat in the NFC Championship Game to get to the Super Bowl, and some will tell you they enjoyed that game even more than the title game. And why not? It was the Eagles who were responsible for the Bucs' worst playoff losses.

A decade has rushed past, and young fans have turned into old ones. The greatness of the Bucs didn't last long enough. Who knows when another Super Bowl victory will come again? Three more years? Five more years? Ten?

In the meantime, we have the Bucs of '02. To Tampa Bay, they are our '72 Dolphins, our '85 Bears, our '68 Jets. Around here, Jan. 26 will always be a holiday, and those players will always be local icons.

They put each other on the map, that team and this town. A decade ago, there seemed to be less distance between the Bucs and Tampa Bay. The franchise wasn't quite as guarded, and the players seemed as if they were more tied to the community.

As a result, Tampa Bay fans knew those guys. They knew the faces, the personalities, the background stories. They knew how the players sounded, and often, how they felt.

They knew Brooks was quiet and Sapp was loud and Lynch had an internal fire that most other Boy Scouts lack. They knew about Alstott's relentlessness and Keyshawn's ego and Jurevicius' strength as he played despite the failing health of his newborn son. They knew about Rice's wonderful weirdness and about Barber, who returned an interception from Philadelphia's 8-yard line all the way to San Diego.

At the time, Gruden was Tampa Bay's favorite son. Kiffin was everyone's kindly uncle. On a team that touched a community, everyone else was a member of the family.

After all, these guys had suffered, too. The wretched past of the franchise was not that far behind. This was the Bucs, that lost franchise of Culverhouse and 0-26, of Leeman Bennett and Keith McCants and Charles McRae and Eric Curry. They were the team Doug Williams left, and the one Bo Jackson rejected, and the one Bill Parcells left at the altar.

This 2002 team changed all of that, and it changed perception along with it. When the Bucs won it all, Tampa Bay won along with them.

To an outsider, that might sound trite. To the cynical, sports is illusion, and the millionaires who play it often have little in common with those who cheer their names. Rarely does a team alter the community it represents.

This one did. It reached a deeper part of Tampa Bay than most teams do, even the most successful ones. The Bucs were suddenly a cool team to see, and Tampa Bay was a cool place to be.

As the years have gone by, many fans across the country seem to have forgotten. Every year, someone rates the Super Bowl winners, and every year, a lot of other teams seem to be appreciated more fondly than the Bucs. People seem to have forgotten how fierce that defense was — for 100 games, that defense stacked up favorably with almost every other defense the league has seen.

Perhaps the perception of that team would be different if the Bucs had won two or three Super Bowls. They certainly had the talent to do so. A little more offense in '99 and 2000, and history would have a better memory of the Bucs.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for being a one-and-only team, too. Nothing fades success quite like more success. If the Bucs had won more Super Bowls, perhaps we wouldn't appreciate what this team meant to Tampa Bay as much as we do.

Remember what Tampa Bay was like a decade ago. It was a different place. It was known for its heat and its humidity, and for its strip malls and strip clubs, and for its tourism and its tan lines.

As far as sports, Tampa Bay was a wasteland. The Bucs, once defined by how often they lost, had become stuck on a plateau and, frankly, the offense needed a push. The Rays had played five seasons, and along the way, they had lost 490 games. The Lightning was in the middle of its 10th season, and it still hadn't won a playoff series. Each of the three had been called the worst franchise in pro sports, and each time, it fit.

One season changed that. One championship changed the way the nation felt about Tampa Bay, and the way Tampa Bay felt about itself.

It didn't last. Neither did the Mings or the Romans or any other dynasty you wish to name. Great players went away, and none came in to replace them. The Bucs still haven't won a playoff game since that Super Bowl.

For one night, however, greatness came to Tampa Bay. There for a while, we were tough like Alstott, and we were smart like Gruden, and we were sleek like Brooks. We were powerful like Sapp, and we were dangerous like Lynch, and we were kind of groovy like Rice. The current players of the Bucs could find worse players to emulate.

After all, today is Jan. 26 all over again.

In one part of our hearts, isn't it always?

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

2002 Buccaneers: 10 years ago they put Tampa Bay on sports world map 12/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 11:31pm]

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