TAMPA — Before the Bucs, Lightning and Rays existed, Tampa Bay belonged to the Rowdies.
The Rowdies, born in 1974, were the area's first professional sports franchise. They gave Tampa Bay its first championship, winning the North American Soccer League title in their inaugural season of 1975.
The team was made up mostly of young foreign players, but fans embraced them as their own.
"Soccer was so much in its infancy back then," former Rowdies defender Mike Connell said. "You could go to a school and head a ball, and it brought so much delight. It was something magical. We were these funny-speaking guys wearing funny-looking uniforms doing funny things."
The green and gold colors are back, and the organizers of the new FC Tampa Bay Rowdies franchise hope success will follow. The new Rowdies, making their debut this year in the U.S. Soccer Federation's Division 2 league, will play their first game Friday at Crystal Palace Baltimore.
A look back at the Rowdies' history:
When the first Rowdies signed in 1975, a leaguewide clause specified they make several public appearances and serve as ambassadors of the sport. That created an instant connection with the bay area fan base.
"We'd even go to kids' birthday parties," said defender Farrukh Quarishi, the Rowdies' first overall pick in the 1975 college draft who also served as the team's director of youth development. "People still come up to me and tell me that I came to their elementary school or middle school. It's amazing because you don't realize the far-reaching impact you can make."
They became the people's players. Fans, commonly referred to as "Fannies," filled Tampa Stadium with signs and cheered, chanting the Rowdies' song: "The Rowdies are … a kick in the grass."
Ultimately, Connell said, the players' humbleness drew the fans to them.
"The very first year, there was no irreverence," Connell said. "There was no aloofness. There were no prima donnas. From (owner) George Strawbridge on down to the guy selling food, we all believed we were representing the community, and it was an honor for them to allow us to do that."
From their first game — a 7-2 indoor win over the Washington Diplomats on Valentine's Day, 1975 at the Bayfront Center — the Rowdies enjoyed immediate success in the NASL. They won the outdoor title in their first year of existence, beating Portland 2-0.
The Rowdies averaged 12,064 fans their first season, a number that ballooned with their on-field success. Tampa Bay made the NASL finals, called the Soccer Bowl, in 1978 and '79. In 1979, they averaged 28,546 fans a game. And for the annual July 4 game in 1980, the Rowdies drew a record 56,389.
"For those of us who were there from the beginning, it was very satisfying," said Connell, an original Rowdie in 1975 and the only remaining one by 1981. "At that time from '77-80, we owned the town. On Monday mornings the talk around the water cooler was about the Rowdies, not the Bucs."
The team reached the playoffs its first seven seasons. The NASL also held an indoor season from 1979-1984, with games at the Bayfront Center, and the Rowdies won the indoor title in 1980.
The NASL folded in 1984, and the Rowdies operated independently before joining the American Soccer League in 1987. While attendance dwindled, the team was still successful (drawing an ASL-leading 58,012 total in 1989). The ASL became part of the American Professional Soccer League in 1991 and by their final home game in 1993, the Rowdies drew just 1,736. The team folded after that season when owner Cornelia Corbett was unable to sell it.
Had it not been for the Rowdies, soccer likely would not have become as popular in the area as it is today. Rowdies players created and coached the bay area's first youth leagues.
Former Rowdies player Perry Van der Beck, the current team's technical director, became the first American player drafted out of high school in 1978. In Florida, high school soccer was rarely played outside South Florida and Orlando.
"The game itself was new to the Tampa Bay community," Van der Beck said. "They didn't have high school soccer here until 1980. I was coming from St. Louis, which was a (soccer) hotbed at the time. The newness of the team and where the players came from, a lot of them were from the UK, and their character and their accents; I think it was kind of catchy."
That impact continues to this day. Many former Rowdies, including Van der Beck, Quarishi and Connell, have spent their post-playing careers coaching soccer. Van der Beck also coached the MLS's Tampa Bay Mutiny.
"I try to explain to the players playing now that the Rowdies players were always accessible to the youth leagues," Van der Beck said. "A lot of those guys were pioneers for getting soccer started in the Tampa Bay area. People looked at the Rowdies that we were always there, we were always there to help out."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at [email protected]