Fennelly: Gruden Ring of Honor ceremony was a big group hug

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TAMPA — Last week, Jon Gruden was talking about it.
“They’ll probably boo me out of the stadium,” he said.
Pay no attention to that nut case.
Three hours before the game Monday night, Warren Sapp headed for the entrance at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs Hall of Famer was wearing his gold jacket from Canton.
“Brooks made me wear it,” Sapp said.
Sapp was asked what Jon Gruden meant to Bucs history.
“Everything — everything,” he said. “Man won us a championship. Won all of us a championship.”
It was Ring of Honor night for Jon Gruden, that old rock pounder. There were cheers upon cheers. A bizarre gathering, give the dumpster fire of a Bucs season.
Come back, Chucky, come back!
Bizarre.
Gruden was gracious during the halftime ceremony. He thanked the Glazers for trading for him in 2002. He thanked the late Malcolm Glazer. He thanked his mother and father and his wife, Cindy, and their three boys, Deuce, Mike and Jayson. He thanked his coaches and his players and his 2002 champions.
“In the ultimate team game, this is the greatest individual honor of my life,” Gruden said.
And, Gruden being Gruden, he asked his guys to run one last play for him — the play that led to the Bucs’ first touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII. So, Brad Johnson handed to Mike Alstott and Alstott plowed ahead into the end zone. For Chucky.
Group hug.
A giddy back-to-the-future mood that hung over this Gruden celebration. It was like an electric light parade in the middle of a 10-car pile-up. It almost made you feel sorry for Bucs coach Dirk Koetter as he stood on the field before the game.
“He’s the one who took us on the threshold of the precipice and molded us into what we were,” former Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice. Said of Gruden. “He’s the head of the snake.”
And Rice, for one, thinks Gruden should come back.
“He understands the foundation of this thing. He can do the job all over again.”
In this season of nothing, Gruden returned with the ESPN Monday night TV crew. In this season of nothing, here was the man who made the Bucs and their fans think anything was possible — and maybe that anything still is.
Come back, Chucky! Come back!
“I was going to Adams Middle School and my dad pulled me of school,” said Bucs fan Michael Goins, who was 13 in 2002. “We went down to the parade. Downtown. When he came around the corner, I started yelling 'Chucky … Chucky’ Everybody else started yelling. Chucky. Chucky. He saw us.”
Chucky ... Chucky.
“Where’s Jon?” legendary Bucs fan Jackie Riles asked. Riles is the famed “Pillow Lady,” who has been knitting for the Bucs since the days of John McKay. She was inducted into the fan wing at the Hall of Fame in 2002, the same season Gruden took the Bucs where they had never been before.
“We’ll never forget Jon,” Riles said.
Gruden had a wings party the other night at Hooters. He reportedly had a very good time. Jackie waited at the media entrance for him with a Christmas card. Gruden had already been inside the stadium for an hour, in the zone, ensconced.
On a night in 2003, Gruden held the Lombardi Trophy aloft in this same stadium. Monday, his guys ran another play for him. Whether Gruden returns or not, whether he grabs the headset again, finds a new kind of rock, the Bucs will always have been world champions on his watch. He was the head of the snake. So let it be written.
Jackie Riles sat in her wheelchair on Jon Gruden night.
“You know who I’d really like to see?” she said. “Tony.”
Maybe next year.
It was Chucky’s night.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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