An unrelenting virus has infected more than 1.75 million Floridians and killed nearly 28,000. It has destroyed jobs and shuttered businesses. It has changed the ways we interact with family and friends, shop, work and celebrate.
Despite all that, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Rays went to the World Series and now the Buccaneers are about to make history as the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The coronavirus, though, has dampened the joy of the greatest sports year in Tampa Bay history. It has altered how we celebrate, and who we celebrate with. Many will watch the Super Bowl without loved ones lost to the virus. The pandemic also makes it too risky for others to gather together for the game.
”Bittersweet: that’s the word that sums it up,” said Geri Olson, who lost her husband, Rob, to pancreatic cancer in October.
The swift progression of the cancer, and the risks of bringing the 63-year-old grandfather into a crowded stadium, kept him from attending his last game.
Here are the stories of three Bucs’ families navigating the bitter and the sweet.
Gone too soon
Adrian Olivo grew up playing soccer and watching football.
His grandfather, Ruben Castillo, loved the Bucs and the Florida Gators. He always wanted his grandsons to give football a try, and by Olivo’s freshman year of high school, grandpa had convinced him.
At Armwood High School, he became a kicker. His younger brother, Luis, was a long snapper. They both play in college now, Adrian at North Carolina Central and Luis at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.
“That was a dream for him,” said Adrian Olivo, 20, “to watch me play football and watch my brother play football.”
The grandfather saw that dream come true. But he didn’t make it to another dream, of seeing Tom Brady play in pewter and red. Castillo died of complications from the coronavirus on July 21. He was 60.
Castillo lived in Plant City for 40 years, working in strawberry fields and managing a farm, said his daughter, Noemi Olivo.
The family was close. They’d watch Bucs’ games together and snack on grandpa’s signature wings, made with a mix of spices that turned them red. Adrian remembered how excited his grandpa was when Brady signed, and how he laughed his memorable laugh when the quarterback walked into the wrong house.
Castillo worked hard and cared about his family more than he did himself, which may be what got him in the end. When he got sick, so did his wife, daughter and oldest grandson.
“He was more worried about everybody else instead of worrying about him,” his daughter said.
He later collapsed in the South Florida Baptist Hospital parking lot. Doctors spent a week trying to revive him.
His family will watch Sunday’s game together. They may also spend time with Castillo at Hopewell Memorial Gardens, where his grave is adorned with a Bucs flag.
One last game
COVID hospital restrictions were well underway in August when Rob Olson checked himself in for pain and fatigue.
The diagnosis: stage 3 pancreatic cancer. Olson found out Aug. 28, on his 63rd birthday, with his wife, Geri Olson, and daughter, Sandy Legros, listening over the phone.
They spoke with hospice about setting goals for his last months. The family doubted the lifelong mechanic from Dunedin could go back to working on golf carts and buses at Innisbrook Golf Resort, as he wanted to.
They had another idea: What about a Bucs game? Olson had been a fan since that first season in 1976. He could name every player on that 0-14 team, said his friend and season-ticket buddy Bob Hanlon. He said they’d go to games and Olson “would start telling me about some play from 1977 or something, and I’d say ‘Rob, I’m trying to watch this game today that’s happening right now!’”
The family considered the risks of attending in person. But an immunocompromised cancer patient, in a semi-crowded stadium during a pandemic, with lots of stairs?
“Because of COVID, we really couldn’t take him anywhere,” Legros said, “and even without COVID, I don’t know if he would have made it.”
Still, he got to watch some games. He saw them lose to the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 13, sitting on the couch with grandsons Jayden Olson and Kai Legros. Then he and Hanlon watched Tampa Bay wallop Green Bay on Oct. 18.
That was Olson’s last game. He died on Oct. 26 in the arms of his wife of 37 years.
He would have loved to see his team make it to the big game, his family said. His wife could see him raiding his retirement to score tickets.
“I say now he’s got probably the best seat of anybody.”
Finding his voice
It was 3½ months before her son’s due date when the doctors told Nicole Harrison it was time.
She gave birth to a tiny Noah, his diapers the size of a dollar bill, his skin translucent. Doctors said he likely wouldn’t survive. But as the days went on, he kept living, and the prognosis became life, but a difficult one.
After 84 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, Nicole and Joe Harrison brought him home on oxygen and heart monitors. At 3, he walked. At 5, he spoke. Doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy and determined he was on the autism spectrum. He struggled with school and social contact. His parents looked for ways to bring him joy.
Then, as a teenager, he found sports. He liked that each game had a definitive start and end, a game clock, and player statistics. He started watching the Bucs, bouncing on the couch, holding one iPad to watch the other scores and another iPad to Facetime with his grandfather.
The night of the Jan. 23 NFC Championship, 17-year-old Noah was bouncing so hard he caught some air. In any other year, his parents would have tried to get him Super Bowl tickets, but the pandemic complicates everything.
Noah is sensitive to how a mask feels on his face and behind his ears. But he powered through, practicing each night while playing Mario Kart. Around crowds, though, there are no guarantees.
He may watch the pregame flyover from the Tampa International Airport parking garage. Noah loves airplanes, too.
Either way, he’ll be watching the Super Bowl, starting with the National Anthem, which he sings every time, holding an American flag pillow.
“When he sings ... I get a lump in my throat, still,” his mother said. “We started at a place where they said he would never utter a word, and he sings.”
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