Four days before the biggest game of his life, quarterback Brad Johnson broke an NFL rule to help the Bucs win Super Bowl XXXVII. • At 34, Johnson had developed a few compulsions during his career. He changed his socks and shoes every quarter, and over the course of a game he replaced everything but his pants. Johnson always sweated profusely, and he liked the clean, dry feeling. • This was particularly true when it came to footballs. He had trouble gripping a wet ball, a cold ball or a new, out-of-the-box ball. It had been enough of a problem during the NFC title game in Philadelphia the week before — where it was 26 degrees at kickoff — that he was forced to wear a glove. "I wouldn't have been able to play without it," he said. • At the Super Bowl, the NFL had 100 footballs. They were new, slick and supposedly under the league's watchful eye. • But not leaving anything to chance, Johnson made sure the balls were scuffed and ready well before the Dixie Chicks sang the national anthem. • "I paid some guys off to get the balls right," Johnson now admits. "I went and got all 100 footballs, and they took care of all of them." • How much did it cost Johnson? "Seventy-five hundred (dollars)," he said. • "They took care of them."
As the majority of Tampa Bay's 2002 championship team returns to Raymond James Stadium today for a 10-year reunion, Johnson and his former teammates opened up about that season, that game and the aftermath.
Some of the stories will surprise you.
Such as how the starting quarterback got back to the team hotel after winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
Johnson completed 18 of 34 passes for 215 yards, including two touchdowns to Keenan McCardell. As the postgame confetti fell, Johnson grabbed his son Max and stood beside his wife, Nikki, who was pregnant with their son Jake.
"All of a sudden, there's the moment you've watched for 20 years on TV," Johnson said. "You realize you're the Super Bowl champions."
After lengthy interviews and a shower, Johnson emerged from the dark of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium to realize he and his marketing agent had missed the last bus to the party at the team hotel.
Not a problem.
"We hitchhiked a ride home with complete strangers," the former FSU standout said. "We stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought a 12-pack of beer. It was like going to Panama City on spring break."
Cameras surrounded stoic linebacker Derrick Brooks as he exited the tunnel of Veterans Stadium and trudged toward the visiting locker room, the Bucs having lost 20-10 to the Eagles on Oct. 20.
As Brooks departed, he looked up at two Eagles fans in Brian Dawkins jerseys and issued a warning: "We'll be back."
"It must have been the way I was looking at them, but they just stared ahead and didn't say a word," Brooks said. "Going up the tunnel, I told (defensive tackle Warren) Sapp, 'We're going to see them again. We've got them.' "
The Vet had been the Bucs' house of horrors. The previous two seasons ended with wild-card losses beneath the weight of a frozen offense that failed to score a touchdown: 21-3, then 31-9.
Brooks' premonition came true. The Bucs returned for the NFC title game but were a 4-point underdog in what was supposed to be a coronation for the Eagles.
Even worse, they were missing a key player when they arrived: receiver Joe Jurevicius.
His first child, Michael, had been born prematurely two weeks earlier with sialidosis, a rare disease that affects the body's ability to break down fats and carbohydrates.
Jurevicius spent the week with his family, and by the time he joined the team in Philadelphia late Saturday night — sleep-deprived and with little preparation — it was unclear if he would play.
"I was unsure about making that trip out there because of the unknown of what happens when I land," said Jurevicius, who credits a bear hug from Sapp upon his arrival for helping him cope. "It was tormenting."
Jurevicius played and, with the Bucs down 7-3, provided the most inspirational play of the season.
"The play was Triple Left, 83, Double Smash X Option," Johnson said. "A lot of times, we run that play in the red zone and you're looking for (a specific defense). You leave the linebacker one-on-one with the middle (receiver). I almost audibled out of the play."
Instead, Johnson let it ride, hitting Jurevicius on a short crossing pattern that turned into a 71-yard gain down the left sideline. It was Jurevicius' only reception of the game and set up Mike Alstott's go-ahead touchdown run.
"I remember my lungs catching on fire because I hadn't worked all week," he said. "I could feel the lactic acid building up in my legs. As I'm telling myself, 'Yes you can. Yes you can,' my legs start filling up and the lungs were saying, 'No you can't. No you can't.'
"My fear was everything revolving around my son. If things took a turn for the worse, I (wouldn't be) there. But I think the story is that he held out for me. If he showed it, then I could do it, too."
The catch was trumped only by what many still consider the biggest play in Bucs history. Leading 20-10 with 3:12 to play and the Eagles threatening to pull within a field goal, cornerback Ronde Barber stepped in front of a Donovan McNabb pass and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown.
Despite a sellout crowd of 66,713, there was an eerie — and unforgettable — silence as Barber ran the Bucs to their first Super Bowl appearance.
"You want a picture of how it was? Get our highlight video," Brooks said. "And you'll see these two (Eagles) assistant coaches staring ahead as Ronde runs by them."
Barber revealed he took home a souvenir from the Vet that day, the last game played there.
"I have a piece of the turf," he said. "One of our guys got it and was cutting it up on the plane and said, 'Here, you need to have a piece of this.' It's taped to that ball in my trophy case."
J on Gruden's experience as a third-string quarterback at the University of Dayton did not serve him particularly well when the Bucs coach sneaked under center during a two-minute drill at the Thursday practice prior to the Super Bowl.
But his familiarity with the Raiders team he coached a year earlier and his spot-on impression of petulant quarterback Rich Gannon proved both hilarious and instructional.
Simulating the tempo of the Raiders offense and imitating to a tee Gannon's rapid-fire audibles in their terminology, he demonstrated to the Bucs defense what they were in for.
"That was more for him than for the team," Johnson said. "He took a two-minute drill and would take about 55 seconds for each play because he'd run through four audibles for each play. I don't know if he was really that successful or if the defense was letting him complete a few balls. It was fun. It was a light moment during the week. It lightened up the mood."
It was no laughing matter for Gannon, the league's MVP in 2002.
The Bucs intercepted him a Super Bowl-record five times, returning three for touchdowns, and sacked him five times in a 48-21 win that remains the franchise's only NFL championship.
The extravagant victory party thrown by the team owner, the Glazer family, at the hotel in La Jolla, Calif., kicked off three days of celebration, starting in San Diego and ending with a parade in Tampa.
"I'm still tired today from the after-party," then-Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "I'm still officially tired."
Brooks, the NFL's defensive player of the year that season who sealed the game with a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:27 to play, had promised his wife, Carol, a Mercedes if the team won the Super Bowl.
When he arrived at the team hotel after the game, the first person Brooks shook hands with was Jerry Glauser, owner of a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Sarasota.
"I said, 'Do you mind if I pull you to the side?' " Brooks said. "He looked at me like I was crazy. I spent the first hour after winning the Super Bowl negotiating a price for a car."
Johnson got about 90 minutes of sleep before heading to Disneyland, then joining Keyshawn Johnson for an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
"I slept in my jersey that night," said Brad Johnson, who endured broken ribs and a fracture in his back that season, "and woke up smelling like a champ."
When the team charter arrived in Tampa on Monday, it took a rare east-west approach to the airport, flying directly over a Raymond James Stadium packed with Bucs fans.
The pilot told the players and coaches to move to the left side of the plane, then dipped the wing so they could get a better look.
A day later, the quarterback joined his teammates for a parade through downtown Tampa with about 100,000 fans lining the streets.
"I knew what it meant to me to win it," Johnson said. "There was a moment when everyone was kind of roaming the streets, high-fiving fans. And I remember Sapp and (safety John Lynch) just kind of hugging each other. And I realized how much it meant to them because they had been there from the beginning; wearing the orange uniforms and turning it all around.
"Everybody has a story, but to see what it meant to them was pretty awesome."
ONE AND DONE
The confetti fell, Gruden hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and Jon Bon Jovi belted out It's My Life on the 50-yard line. But heavy was the head that wore the crown as Super Bowl XXXVII champions.
McKay knew there was about to be a seismic power shift in Tampa Bay.
Gruden wanted the Bucs to be more active in free agency; McKay still preferred to build through the draft.
"There's no question that when a coach wins the Super Bowl, he is going to be given power that in some ways he deserves because winning one is so difficult to do," McKay said.
"I knew philosophically the way we had approached the team prior to Jon getting there and post getting there, and it was going to change dramatically. I thought it was something that I could make work, and then I didn't. I thought it was in (the franchise's) best interest if I became the guy who didn't sit there and say no to everything."
Having closed the Vet with the NFC title game win, the Bucs began the 2003 season by playing in the first game at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. This time, they were even more dominant, winning 17-0, and it appeared the defending champions were poised for another run.
But the wheels fell off.
On one play the next week against Carolina, Alstott and Jurevicius collided. Alstott fractured a vertebrae in his neck while Jurevicius tore a ligament in his right knee. Tampa Bay saw three of its kicks blocked — including the potential winning extra point with no time left in regulation — in a 12-9 overtime loss.
Two weeks later, with cornerback Brian Kelly injured, they blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead en route to a 38-35 overtime loss to Tony Dungy — fired as Bucs coach after the 2001 season — and the Colts on Monday Night Football. It was the first time in NFL history a team had lost after leading by 21 or more with less than four minutes to play.
"It just didn't happen," Johnson said. "We did fall apart. We had injuries, and it got split up."
The season also included two divorces.
First, Keyshawn Johnson fell out of favor with Gruden. Then McKay resigned with two games left in the season to become general manager of the division rival Falcons.
Dissatisfied with his shrinking role, Johnson got in trouble for not taking the team charter home from San Francisco after catching only one pass in a loss to the 49ers. A resident of Los Angeles in the offseason, Johnson said he had his son's parent-teacher conference to attend the next day while in California.
Johnson had one catch the next week, a win over Dallas, before a 10-catch, 123-yard game in a loss to New Orleans.
Johnson revealed last week that he was in Dallas in mid November 2003 seeking advice from Cowboys coach Bill Parcells on how to mend fences with his Bucs boss when he learned he was deactivated for the final six games of the season.
"I was sitting at Bill Parcells' couch at his house in Dallas trying to figure out how I could talk to Gruden and deal with the situation in Tampa because it was becoming frustrating," Johnson said. "I didn't want anybody to know I was down there. It was so stressful. I needed to seek advice from someone I trust on how to deal with the situation."
McKay's first game as the Falcons GM was — coincidentally — at Raymond James Stadium. The 30-28 loss on Dec. 20 helped the Bucs finish 7-9 and become only the seventh team to post a losing record the season after winning a Super Bowl.
Johnson was traded to the Cowboys for receiver Joey Galloway during the ensuing offseason.
"The injuries mounted up, and we lost the essence of our chemistry," Brooks said. "The situation on offense was a distraction. We didn't get turnovers. I firmly believe that team should've been in the playoffs, but it fell apart at the seams, from the management all the way down.
"When it comes apart at the seams from the top, it was hard to shield that locker room from that."
Times staff writers Joe Smith and Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.