TAMPA — When Alterraun Verner was 6 years old, his dad signed him up to play football, just to see if he liked it.
"My dad was my biggest fan," Verner said. "All he ever asked from me every game was just to play my hardest. I could give up three touchdowns, get three interceptions, he would still love me the same."
Verner's dad was with him every step of the way. Always with a smile. Always with a hug.
And Verner is certain his dad was with him Sunday when the Bucs cornerback played one of the best games of his career just 48 hours after Robert Lee Verner died of a heart attack at 61.
"He would've been smiling," Verner said with tears in his eyes and cracks in his voice. "Very, very proud."
Robert was in Tampa last week visiting Verner and his family for Thanksgiving. On Friday, while Verner was in meetings at One Buc Place, he got the crushing news that his father had died.
He knew what he had to do. Play for his father.
"He made so many sacrifices for me to get where I am today, and I know he would not want him to be the cause of me not playing," Verner, 27, said. "That's why I decided to play. I wanted to honor him, knowing all that he did to try to get me to where I am today."
He honored his dad with a sensational game, including a key interception in Tampa Bay's 14-5 victory against Seattle. After Verner picked off Russell Wilson's pass late in the second quarter, Verner was tackled in the middle of the field. He immediately sprang to his feet, started running, then quickly dropped to his knees as he was mobbed by practically every member of the Bucs.
He then went to the bench and cried.
"I was thinking about how (his father) was reacting," Verner said. "I was definitely thinking of him."
Underneath his No. 21 jersey, Verner wore a T-shirt with a picture of his dad.
"Something my wife made for me," Verner said. "It's one of my favorite pictures of me and my father. That's one thing I won't forget about him, and that's his smile."
That smile was everything Robert was. Warm, inviting, friendly.
"He was the most caring, loving person that you'll ever know," Verner said. "He would talk to a stranger next to him at the bus stop, in the stands. … He cared about everyone.
"He was willing to take his shirt off and give it to a person he never knew. And that's the man I will cherish forever. That love and support he gave me through the bad, good, everything, that's the type of man he was."
What did he mean to Verner?
"Everything," Verner said.
After the game, the ball Verner intercepted sat in his locker as he tried to gather his emotions. Nearby, teammate Mike James said, "When you lose a parent, nothing can hurt you."
Teammate Peyton Barber agreed. "Special," he said.
Across the way, linebacker Kwon Alexander thought back to last season when his 17-year-old brother was shot and killed. Alexander, like Verner, played a stellar game days after the tragedy.
"I've been there," Alexander said. "I know how it feels. I saw the tears in his eyes. And all our eyes."
Bucs leader Gerald McCoy said a pregame prayer and talked to the team about family. "We got a brother hurt," he told his teammates. "Go out there and show him that he does have family. When he's hurting, he can lean on us."
In these moments, we are reminded that players are more than just teammates. They really are a family. Verner thanked his football brothers for their support.
And before leaving the locker room, he thanked his dad.
"He sacrificed so much for me to reach my goal, not even from just a football sense but a life sense," Verner said. "Advice, just being there for me, just caring for me … I'm just happy that I can try to make him proud while he's looking down on me."