A quarterback, his wife and his disappointment walked into a restaurant. Table for three, please.
Only hours had passed since he had endured an ugly, frustrating finish to an ugly, frustrating season, and he felt empty and miserable. Still, a man has to eat, so Trent Dilfer and his wife, Cass, entered an Outback Steakhouse in Tampa.
It was at the end of the 1995 season, the Bucs had lost seven of their last nine games, and Dilfer had spent much of the season arguing with head coach Sam Wyche.
He checked in at the host stand then began to wait for his table. Soon, heads began to turn, and the whispers of customers who recognized the local celebrity began to rise. Even in disappointment, the Bucs are still the Bucs and the quarterback is still the quarterback.
Soon, the mood of the restaurant changed. The whispers turned to murmurs, and their sound of discontent began to grow. Soon, there in the land of the Bloomin' Onion, the customers began to boo the blooming quarterback. They hissed. Some loudly suggested that Dilfer should eat somewhere else.
For the record, he did not. Dilfer and his wife sat among the unhappy fans and ate their dinners. Still, it is safe to assume no one offered to pick up the check.
Yeah, losing eats at everyone.
Hard as it may be to believe, it hurts the competitors more than it hurts the customers.
• • •
Fans feel their own pain, of course. They get emotionally invested in their team, and sometimes, their passion turns to poison.
For the players, it is a thousand times worse.
"It's like you're in quicksand," former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "The harder you try, the faster you go down. You look around the room, and you look for answers. It eats away at you."
Said Dilfer: "It's like your dreams are shattered every time you fail."
Perhaps you are fresh out of sympathy. After all, players are rich and famous, and their homes are big, and their cars are fast. What fan feels the ache of an athlete living the good life? Especially if that athlete has dared to be disappointing?
On the other hand, for an athlete, this is his life. His sport consumes him, defines him, completes him. Most of his days are shaped around a game, and when he is unsuccessful, most of his nights can be ruined by it.
In these days of being frustrated by Bucs players once again, at least acknowledge how much greater their frustration must be.
"It just cuts a hole through you," former Bucs linebacker Richard Wood said. "If you're competitive, it just slices you down the middle, just stabbing you over and over. Dave Pear and I used to beat the lockers up. I think I put my foot through one once."
"It's that sick feeling in your stomach," Dilfer said. "Your pride gets shattered. You create this mentality that you're invincible, that you're going to succeed, that you're going to be perfect. There is a letdown that hits your pride when you don't do that. Little failures start to define you."
Outside the locker room, people also seem to look differently at you. Brad Culpepper, a former defensive tackle for the Bucs, remembers his first week with Tampa Bay. He was at a gas station, and he was wearing a Bucs T-shirt.
Another customer, standing nearby, turned to him and said, "Man, you like the Bucs? They stink."
"Ah, they're all right," Culpepper said, not letting on that he was a player.
"I wouldn't be caught dead in a shirt like that," the man said.
Oh, and Brad? Welcome to town.
And so it goes. This is the town where a radio station once erected a mocking billboard of quarterback Vinny Testaverde in front of a blue background. "Vinny Thinks This is Orange," the billboard said, taking a shot at Testaverde's color-blindness.
This is the town where a losing streak left a coach (Ray Perkins) attacking tackle Ron Heller because he heard the word quit. (For the record, Heller said "don't quit" to his teammates).
Sapp remembers being approached by a fan at a club and being told how bad the team was. "So you're a season-ticket holder?" Sapp said.
"I love Tampa," he said. "I love the water. I loved playing there. But the one thing I didn't love was the venom."
So what is it like to be a Buccaneer, now 0-3 and heavy underdogs to the Redskins today? According to those who have been there, it's a dark, desperate place. And, no, the mood probably isn't as tranquil and positive as a team would indicate.
Steve DeBerg, who had two tours of duty with the Bucs (one under John McKay, Leeman Bennett and Ray Perkins, the second under Sam Wyche) remembers an early-season losing streak that turned ugly in 1992.
"In those days, you got your check on Monday," DeBerg said. "So Sam decided he was going to give them out personally. He would call somebody up, and then he would make a remark about how he didn't earn his check. He called up a wide receiver, and he would drop the check on the floor and say, 'Just like you dropped the ball.' I guess he was so embarrassed he wanted to embarrass the team."
Sometimes, Culpepper said, the players can turn on each other.
"There was a lot of infighting, a lot of finger-pointing," Culpepper said. "Publicly, you say there isn't. But quite frankly, there are doubts. Trent Dilfer is one of my best friends in the world, but in his first two years, I told him I wished he was dead. I wanted him to have a heart attack and die. We were hard on him. I love Trent, but we were relentless."
So, Brad, you didn't happen to be in that Outback the night Dilfer got booed, did you?
"Maybe in a table in the back," Culpepper said, laughing.
Sapp remembers Tony Dungy's first year when the team got off to an 0-5 start in 1996. He said the players would snap and snarl vicious comments at each other … until they reached the bench. That's where the cameras were.
Said former Bucs linebacker Scot Brantley: "You not only doubt your coaches and your coordinators, you start looking around to see if everyone sees the problems, too. And when you start doubting yourself, you are at the point of no return."
So how does a team pull itself out of a backslide? In Culpepper's day, it was because of Dungy's consistency and resolve. Former defensive end Chidi Ahanotu suggests it was because of leaders such as Hardy Nickerson. Maybe the team simply gets fed up with the losing.
"The best way I can say it is that it feels like a 400-pound man smothering you with a pillow, and you're claustrophobic," Ahanotu said. "You can't move, can't lift him off you, and you are suffocating."
In the meantime, the pain lingers. It is a spinning, out-of-control fall, a search for water across a desert that seems endless.
"I remember Cass looking at me once and asking, 'How long can you put up with this?' " Dilfer said.
"I said, 'As long as it takes.' "