It had been an eternity, it seems, since he had visited the neighborhood. It had been centuries, more or less, since he took in the sights.
Finally, Kellen Winslow was in the end zone again.
And if you think it was about time, you probably noticed Winslow looking at his left wrist, as if checking some sort of invisible watch. Yeah, it felt as if it was about time for him, too.
"It had been forever," Winslow said softly. "It feels like it had been … years. I don't even remember the last time I scored."
How long had it been? Going by the schedule, it had been 65 quarters over 16 games. Going by the stat sheet, it had been 77 catches. Going by the calendar, it had been 372 days. Going by the game clocks, it had been 1,000 minutes and 54 seconds of playing time (16.67 hours).
Going by the clock in Winslow's competitive soul, it had been since, oh, the invention of the scoreboard.
Not that anyone had been counting or anything.
At last, however, Winslow had given his team a reason to kick an extra point again.
As the Bucs strolled along their merry way to a 6-3 record Sunday, this was one of the keeper moments. Once again, he was in rhythm, and once again, he was a dangerous receiver. In a season that has been measured by frustration instead of catches, Winslow was once again a weapon.
For weeks, it seemed he had mattered less than he did a year ago. Oh, his catches weren't off by much — he had 35 after eight games last year and 33 this year. But Winslow's moments were down. He had scored five times in the first half of last season and none at all through eight games this year.
Last year, when the Bucs were playing pedestrian wide receivers, Winslow seemed like the only threat. He caught 27.6 percent of the Bucs' receptions; this year, it's down to 22.4 percent. This year, with rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, there have been other threats. In some ways, Winslow has been on the back burner.
Not against the Panthers, however. Winslow caught six balls — a third of Josh Freeman's completions — for 65 yards. He also coaxed a 21-yard pass interference call against old University of Miami teammate Jon Beason.
Then there was the touchdown reception. You know, the At-Last Play.
Say this for Winslow: Double coverage didn't stop him, and pass interference didn't stop him, and the frustration of the season didn't stop him. He juked Beason, and he withstood Carolina safety Chris Godfrey coming over his back. Godfrey was called for interference, but it hardly mattered. Winslow double-clutched the catch then held on for his first score since Nov. 8, 2009. It felt good enough that Winslow spiked the ball.
"And I never spike the ball," Winslow said.
So how good was the catch?
"It was outstanding," Williams said. "I'd give it a 10."
"It wasn't perfect," said fellow tight end John Gilmore. "I'd give it an 8.9."
"He didn't catch it clean," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "I'd give it an 8.5."
Winslow listens to the scores and grins. He shakes his head.
"It was about a four," he said.
"There have been lots of better catches than that," Winslow said. "Besides, I almost didn't get it. I double-clutched it."
For Winslow, it has been a frustrating year. He has had only two games with more than five catches and only two games with more than 50 yards. For a receiver who thinks of himself as a direct route to success, as a player who loves the ball in his hands, that can be difficult. Against Arizona, in particular, he felt double-covered and held for much of the day.
"It's been frustrating, but we're winning," Winslow said. "If we weren't winning, it might have been different. There were a few games where I felt like I wasn't getting enough opportunities, but sometimes it goes like that. You want to have more catches, and you want to have more patience. But you have to be patient. Sometimes, you have to be very patient."
For a player who constantly compares himself with his peers, patience is not always easy. Still, he points out there are seven games to go.
"It's like a NASCAR race," Winslow said. "I'm behind now, but it's a long race to the finish."
And so Winslow did not gripe, and he did not plead, and he did not remind the offensive coaches that he was still eligible. As a young player, Winslow admitted, he might not have handled it as well. But you grow, and you learn.
"You have to be a professional," Winslow said. "You have to keep working."
He is still that. For all of the highlights, and for all of the headlines, he is only 27. There are still plays he can make. There is still help he can give. And, yes, his coaches say they know that.
"He was K2 today," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "He had his red and white on. He was ready to go from the beginning, and he was fired up. When he plays like that and plays that aggressive and he plays with strong hands, he's tough to deal with. Trust me. I've tried to defend him in practice, and he's tough to deal with. He's a pain in the neck on the scout team."
Turns out, he is still a pain to the other team, too.
Turns out, a touchdown still counts for six. After all of this time, who knew?