This is the second installment in our periodic series on the unlikeliest sports heroes in Tampa Bay history. Got a suggestion for the series? Hit us up on our Facebook page, via Twitter (@TBTimes_Sports) or by email at email@example.com.
TAMPA — The adulation loitered around him for weeks, even months. Tampa’s toast to Micheal Spurlock began on a windy mid-December day and stretched well into the following February and beyond.
Clout arrived in the form of sirloins and sauvignon, all for vanquishing 32 years of futility in 11 seconds.
“Charley’s Steakhouse was my go-to steakhouse,” the most heralded kick returner in Bucs history said. “And I remember on Valentine’s Day (2008), everywhere it was packed. We weren’t gonna go out, but we had some friends come in town and I was like, ‘Well, this is as good a time as ever to drop your name.’ So I was like, ‘Micheal Spurlock.’
A dozen years later, the response from the Charley’s reservation clerk remains pan-seared in his memory: Micheal Spurlock?! Tampa Bay Micheal Spurlock?! Yes, c’mon, we’ll get you a table!
In the 1986 classic Hoosiers, Gene Hackman’s character notes that some people would kill to be treated like a king, if only for a few moments. Which leads us to Spurlock, a one-time practice-squad plebe raised in the Mississippi Delta who acquired his regional royalty by inflicting a swift and certain death.
More specifically, by methodically laying the most confounding curse in franchise history to rest.
On Dec. 16, 2007, the same day the Bucs clinched their most recent NFC South title, Spurlock became the first Buccaneer to return a kick for a touchdown. His 90-yarder, sprung in part by a textbook wedge formation installed by special teams savant Rich Bisaccia, ended a streak of 1,864 scoreless returns.
“It was just a really well-blocked play,” Bisaccia said. “And Mike did the end result of finishing.”
Before Spurlock, 139 different Buccaneers had tried to outrun the infamy — and had failed. Add this to the surreal factoid heap: The kick-return touchdown was not only the first in the franchise’s existence, but Spurlock’s first.
The kid who once threw nine touchdown passes in a prep game, who once hit a go-ahead grand slam in the final inning of a Dixie Baseball state tournament final, and who closed out that same contest with a curve ball on a 3-2 count for a bases-loaded strikeout, had never returned a kick for a touchdown at any level.
“It just couldn’t have happened to a better person,” former Bucs teammate Michael Clayton said.
Forsaking his first love
The fact Spurlock was standing deep in the north end zone awaiting the kickoff on that bright afternoon is itself a testament to perseverance and steadfast toil.
He went undrafted out of Ole Miss, where he started seven games as a dual-threat senior quarterback in 2005 as the Rebels were transitioning out of the Eli Manning era. Only a few years before his arrival in Oxford, he never had given the game a second thought. Baseball was Spurlock’s first love.
“I never liked football,” said Spurlock, the youngest of three boys raised by an educator and human-resource manager. “l always looked at football like, ‘Those guys are too big to fall on me; they’re gonna break something.’”
He didn’t play the game at the organized level until the eighth grade, and only after his mom encouraged him to go watch his buddies practice as a way of getting him out of the house. Quarterback didn’t appeal to him, but when coaches asked the team who had the best arm, his peers pointed at him.
And set the trajectory for his career in the process. Spurlock evolved into one of Mississippi’s most prolific prep quarterbacks ever at Gentry High in Indianola, a town in the state’s northwest nook where the cotton and catfish seem perpetually ripe for harvest.
His senior year, he totaled more than 4,500 yards and 45 touchdowns, throwing nine touchdowns in a single game, which his team lost, 74-71. But he never returned kicks, ever.
“My head coach wouldn’t let us play defense,” Spurlock recalled.
“If it was one of the starting 11 guys or somebody who played a pivotal part of the offense, he wouldn’t let you play defense, special teams, nothing. It was like, ‘Find some other guys.’ It wasn’t happening.”
When his recruiting picked up steam, he found himself gravitating to an assistant from Ole Miss — dude named Bisaccia. Upon arriving in Oxford, Spurlock roomed with Manning.
“I tell people all the time, I knew him when he had braces,” said Bisaccia, who coached the Rebels running backs and special teams at the time. “He was kind of an all-purpose guy (at Ole Miss). We didn’t play him right away; obviously we had Eli playing quarterback. I begged Coach (David) Cutcliffe to let me have him, let him play running back, and he’d never give him to me.”
About a half-dozen years later, Bisaccia didn’t have to beg.
Late in the 2007 preseason, the Cardinals, who had signed Spurlock as an undrafted free agent in 2006, released him. Unemployed with a wife 8½ months pregnant, he remained in Arizona and continued working out with the hope another club would call.
When his phone finally buzzed, fate had a familiar voice. Bisaccia told Spurlock the Bucs — then coached by Jon Gruden — had one vacant spot on their practice squad. He hopped on the next plane and set history in motion.
“I ended up making the team that way,” he said.
“I learned real quickly that the more you can do (was beneficial), so I was trying to be the jack-of-all trades, play all special teams and do whatever it took to get on offense.”
‘Today is the day'
When Spurlock and his fellow special-teamers took the field on that crisp, windy December day, the proverbial planets hadn’t merely aligned; they stood at erect, military attention.
Several signs indicated the kick-return curse would end that afternoon, the most significant being that Spurlock nearly had broken one the week before at Houston. That one had gone for 45 yards.
“We knew that we were on the verge of doing something special,” Clayton said. “And I think that was why everybody was so precise in their blocking, because we had come close a few times before.”
Additionally, the reeling Falcons (3-11) were wrapping up the most dysfunctional week in franchise history. Days before, suspended quarterback Michael Vick had been sentenced to 23 months in prison for running a dog-fighting ring, and coach Bobby Petrino had abruptly resigned to take the Arkansas job.
Even Derrick Brooks sensed the surreal vibe of this particular Sunday.
“That day, he walked up to me and was like, ‘Spurlock, you know something? It’s a great day today, man,’” Spurlock recalled. “‘Today is the day. It’s a great day for you to run one back. I think today’s the day.‘”
The return occurred with 6:19 to play in the first quarter. The Bucs already had a 7-3 lead thanks to a 29-yard pick-six by Ronde Barber on the third play from scrimmage. Spurlock fielded the short kick at his own 10-yard line. Cla
yton, also back deep to return, was about 7 yards in front of him.
Slightly to Clayton’s left was a three-man wedge: tight ends Anthony Becht and Keith Heinrich, and offensive lineman Matt Lehr in the middle. The remaining players, mostly linebackers and safeties, sprinted back as the ball was kicked, turned around near their 35, and went for the nearest Falcons kamikaze speeding downfield.
“Back in the day you’d create a wedge or a gate, so to speak,” Clayton said. “So Micheal Spurlock is essentially gonna push it to the left and then he’s gonna cut back off our butts.”
Spurlock was never touched on the return.
The wedge did its job on the left side, allowing Spurlock to sprint to the 25, where he dashed through a seam on the right. By the time he reached the 50, he was racing down the Bucs sideline, having gotten behind every Atlanta defender except cornerback Lewis Sanders, who had a poor angle.
“A lot of people talk about the zone, or you talk about plays where everything slowed down, that was one of those types of plays,” said linebacker Ryan Nece, one of the unit’s front-line blockers. “You almost knew right when he caught the ball and he got past that kind of initial grouping, it was gonna be a touchdown.”
Spurlock easily outran Sanders to the end zone. Bisaccia can be seen running with him for several yards down the sideline. Legendary Bucs radio play-by-play announcer Gene Deckerhoff’s call was … well … vintage Deckerhoff.
We could see history. Fifty, 40, to the 30-yard line. Run, Michael! Run, Michael! Run, Michael, run! Touchdown, Tampa Bayyy!!
“Every single week you watch football, it’s the rarest thing that happens,” said Becht, now an ESPN college football analyst.
“So when it does come together and you do it right, man, it’s actually a sight to see if you actually watch the full thing. … I know that one for sure when we watched it, it was really just, ‘Man, it just went perfect.’”
For many involved, the immediate aftermath remains a blur, though the entire unit ran to the end zone for a congratulatory pile-on. Bisaccia vaguely remembers getting a hug from Cato June, and Barber coming over “and like, grabbing a monkey off the back of my shoulder.”
“When you have a big play like that, if you don’t block behind the runner, then the guys that are behind him stop running because they’ve got to go down on kickoff,” said Bisaccia, now Gruden’s special teams coordinator with the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Most of those guys are on the kickoff team as well. And they all ran to the end zone. It was a big melee in the end zone.”
The toast of Tampa Bay
Spurlock celebrated that night with wife Danielle and his parents at the Blue Martini, where he never once had to brandish his wallet.
“We had to pay for nothing,” he said. “Everybody was like, ‘No, you are good.’ It was an awesome night. And then of course, the whole time, (the kick return) is being played on ESPN on the TVs.”
Yards upon yards of red carpet would follow. The Bucs presented Spurlock a silver Breitling Avenger watch (appraised for roughly $5,500), with his number (17) and HISTORY engraved on the back.
Bisaccia gave every member of the kick-return unit red sledgehammers, with the Bucs’ skull-and-crossbones logo engraved on the head. Gruden routinely joked to Spurlock the city should name a street for him.
When purchasing some apparel at a chain retailer at a local mall, Spurlock discovered his credit card for the retailer (which he purchased in Arizona) had been locked as a precaution when several charges in Florida popped up. He left the store with the apparel.
“A lady behind (the counter) was like, ‘Sir, don’t worry about that,’” Spurlock recalled. “‘I know who you are. Let me take care of this for you. All I want you to do is just come to my steak house to eat.'
“That was the first time I was like, ‘Ah, this is real.’”
Nothing else in his journeyman NFL career (seven franchises over parts of 10 seasons) would match the euphoria of that December day. But a few other moments came darn close.
Cut by the Bucs in the 2008 preseason, Spurlock re-signed with them three days before Christmas in 2009. Five days later inside a raucous Superdome, he returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown with 2:25 to play, helping spark an overtime win against the one-loss Saints.
The following November against the Falcons, he fielded a squib kick that had been mishandled by teammate Maurice Stovall, then sprinted down the right sideline for an 89-yard touchdown to highlight arguably his most prosperous day as a pro (255 all-purpose yards).
Two seasons later with the Chargers, he had a 99-yard scoring return against the Raiders.
“He was just the ultimate team player,” Becht said. “I played a long time and was in different locker rooms, and you see guys come in and they always have this narrow-minded projection of themselves like, ‘This is what I do. I’m a receiver, I’m a running back, I’m a corner.’
“They don’t understand how to lengthen their career and be more valuable to the team so ultimately they can stick around as long as possible. He’s one of those prototypical team guys.”
One vagabond lifestyle led to another. Today, Spurlock, 37, is back at his alma mater, serving as a senior player personnel analyst for new Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. It’s his sixth different coaching gig since departing the NFL in 2014.
Like virtually everyone in his profession, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has reduced the bustle of his life, affording him an opportunity to reconnect with Danielle and their six kids ranging in age from 17 to 5.
“It’s always a party at my house,” he said.
The youngest of the brood, 6-year-old Micheal Curtis and 5-year-old Micheal Christian, are zealous Odell Beckham fans and mostly oblivious to their dad’s pro career. But they still get a kick out of watching the YouTube clip of their old man’s most famous kick return and hearing the play-by-play announcer scream his name.
A name for the ages in Tampa.
“The league is filled with more guys like Micheal Spurlock than guys like Tom Brady,” Nece said. “We all need Tom Brady to win championships. The game is so rich and so competitive because of guys like Micheal Spurlock. That’s the kind of guy I’d line up with any day of the week.”