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'L' word new for young Bucs

He was only 11, but Cadillac Williams already was established as a winner.

As a youth football player in Attalla, Ala., the boy who would grow up to be a Buccaneers running back learned early about the sweet taste of victory. He would not experience the bitter taste of defeat for four more years.

When he finally lost a game as a high school freshman, he was so bewildered that he cried, he reluctantly admits.

"I might have shed a tear or two," Williams said.

Fast forward to today, when Williams, 24, and many of his young teammates are experiencing a losing season for the first time. Until now, their careers have consisted of nothing but overwhelming success, making this year quite the education.

"It's very humbling," said 23-year-old rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, whose worst season was 6-4 as a high school senior in Pittsburgh. "It makes you realize that you can't take winning for granted."

One of the subplots of this season of disappointment is how these young players are coping with their first exposure to continuous losing.

There's Williams, who had never endured anything worse than a 7-5 mark as a freshman at Auburn. Gradkowski never won fewer than eight games a season at Toledo. Rookie guard Davin Joseph, 23, rarely lost as a high school player and had nine losses in four years at Oklahoma - as many as the Bucs have this season.

Rookie tackle Jeremy Trueblood, 23, a two-time Indiana state champion in high school, never had worse than an 8-5 mark during his career at Boston College.

Yet, for all their success, here they are at 3-9 - a place they never envisioned themselves.

One of the toughest lessons they've learned is how easily it can happen. On their high school and college teams, they could overcome bad days with talent. In the NFL, the talent level is much too balanced.

"In this league, anyone can beat anyone on any given day," Gradkowski said. "That's what I've learned, that it's a game of inches. It's a play here and a play there that determines the outcomes of games."

Said Joseph: "It's hard to win. That's what I've learned about the NFL. Here, it's so close every Sunday. It's so critical what happens from play to play. You make a turnover here and miss a play there and the momentum of the game changes. If you slip in certain categories, you fall behind and, then, it can happen very easily."

For Trueblood, being a bystander at the most critical point in the season is something he has never experienced.

"It's going to be a little weird when it gets close to playoff time and we don't even have a shot," he said. "That's going to feel really funny. It will be weird watching people play for the title and you know you don't have any say about it. That's a little sad."

Losing often for the first time elicits such emotions. It also brings back memories. Williams recalled that first-ever loss at Etowah High and how much it hurt.

"I can remember being devastated," he said. "I remember my coach came up to me and said, 'Carnell, it's okay.' I just looked at him and said, 'Coach, you don't understand. This is my first loss. I never knew how this felt.' "

The second-year player does now - all too well. But it's also instilled determination.

"It's hard going through a season like this, no doubt," Williams said. "But I know one thing: We're all going to do as much as we can to turn this around."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3377.

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