TAMPA — It was like waking up on Christmas morning and discovering that Santa had delivered nearly every gift on the wish list. With the exception of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, that is, though it may still arrive in two weeks.
More than 500 people lined metal guard rails outside of the Sheltair Aviation hangar at Tampa International Airport, anxiously awaiting the Bucs’ arrival after the team defeated the Packers 31-26 in Green Bay, Wis. It is the Bucs’ first Super Bowl berth since the 2002 season.
Decked out in new and vintage Bucs attire, some fans came to the airport immediately after the NFC Championship Game trophy ceremony. Others waited until closer to the predicted arrival time of 11:30 p.m.
Nearly two decades of heartache and disappointment made this moment, and the wait, worth it.
The team was greeted with flags, handmade signs, megaphone chants and the pure joy of a fan base starved of a conference championship since Jan. 19, 2003. Fans screamed, whistled and hollered for almost an hour after the team’s arrival.
Videos and photos captured these precious moments Bucs fans have been waiting for, some for their whole lives.
And as quarterback Tom Brady — one of the last players out of the first group to depart — drove by in his black truck, fans chanted his name over and over.
“It’s the excitement, the jitters, the butterflies,” Tampa’s Roman Diaz said. “I tried so hard to hold back the tears (when they won).”
Diaz, 44, watched the game with about 150 friends (in a group called the Buccaneer Invasion) at Dave & Buster’s in Tampa. He said he’s watched them depart and come home each trip of the postseason.
“We’re here supporting them,” he added. “We love the Bucs. Rain or shine, it don’t matter. We’re there.”
Diaz wasn’t alone in his excitement Sunday night, either.
Tampa’s Charles Perello has been a Bucs season-ticket holder for the past 29 years.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Perello, 54. “We’ve waited a lot of years for this.”
Perello had faith in Brady and the leadership he has instilled in the franchise, which has had a positive ripple effect on the entire team.
“He lifts the team up,” Perello said. “You can tell the players are actually playing at another level. They’re studying at another level, so we needed that leadership. I don’t think we had that before he got here.”
New Port Richey’s Kristen Hare brought her two children to the airport. The Florida native remembers lining the guard rails as a child at Raymond James Stadium and how exciting it was to see the team come home after a great game. She wanted 8-year-old Mason and 5-year-old Ava to have the same experience.
“It was an incredible moment for all of us (back then),” Hare said. “We have work (Monday), we have school, but we’re going.”