TAMPA — Okay, so the boat parade was a little nuts. To the rest of the world, it probably looked like a town of nuts.
And I have no defense for the thousands who showed up along the riverside without masks or worries during a worldwide pandemic. Outdoors or not, it had the unmistakable look of a super-spreader event, and that is inexcusable.
But it is explainable.
This is a sports market unlike any other. And, yes, there are those who will insert their own jokes at that remark. It’s true Tampa Bay has taken some hits for its lack of financial support to its big-league teams, including the Bucs.
But there’s a difference between the economics of a market and the devotion of its fans. This is not a wealthy market like Boston or San Francisco; it’s not even a blue-collar market like Pittsburgh or Cleveland. This is a retirement mecca with a tourist-based service industry. There’s not a lot of extra cash to spend, and there are not generations upon generations of allegiance to draw upon.
The point is, you cannot look at the attendance figures in a box score and assume you know the depth of a fan base’s love. And you cannot look at the delirious faces on the waterfront Wednesday and tell me that Tampa Bay does not adore its Buccaneers.
Those were not fair-weather fans; they were starving fans. They might not be able to afford season tickets, but they can tell you the Bucs drafted Sean Farrell by mistake in 1982 and almost hired Bill Walsh as the head coach in 1991.
And while the history of football in Tampa Bay is not as deep or significant as a Green Bay or a Chicago, there is something to be said for having watched a franchise grow from a vague idea in the 1970s to a Super Bowl parade in 2003. Then again in 2021.
That thought has been rolling around my head since seeing pictures of college-aged fans in Ybor City on Saturday night, on Dale Mabry Highway on Sunday night, and lining the Riverwalk on Wednesday afternoon. Not so long ago, I was one of those kids.
In 1981, I was a college sophomore working part time at K-Mart and part time as a sports correspondent for the Evening Independent. The Bucs began the year 5-6 and appeared headed for another losing season when they got hot in November. They won three of their next four games and were tied with the Lions atop the NFC Central when they went to Detroit for the season finale.
The Lions, unbeaten in the Silverdome that year, were 5.5-point favorites against the Bucs, and there was no wild card waiting for the loser that afternoon. With Doug Williams completing only 8-of-19 passes, and nose tackle Dave Logan returning a fumble for a touchdown, the Bucs pulled off the upset 20-17 for just their second-ever playoff berth.
My two buddies and I thought it would be a grand idea to show up at the old One Buc Place (across from where International Plaza now sits) to welcome the team home that cold December night. When we arrived, there were cars parked along the street and in ditches, and already thousands of people standing outside the facility.
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To tell you the truth, I don’t remember too many details about that night, but I do recall an unmatched joy for a team I had been following since its very first game in 1976.
So, yes, there is an explanation for the crowds you saw Wednesday.
Those are the fans who spent five years waiting for Jameis Winston to become a franchise quarterback. They are the fans who were convinced that Raheem Morris was a diamond in the rough, who hoped Greg Schiano was the next Bill Belichick, who welcomed Lovie Smith back with open arms and who were willing to believe in Dirk Koetter because they had no other choice.
Those are the fans who suffered through losing records in eight of the past nine seasons and watched first-round draft picks get hurt (Cadillac Williams), traded (Gaines Adams and Aqib Talib) or just cut loose (Josh Freeman and Adrian Clayborn) year after year.
Those are the fans who dared to believe, along with coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht, that bringing in 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady was an inspired choice for this roster at this moment.
And while we’re on the subject, have you ever seen Brady look quite so, um, relaxed and happy during a duck boat parade in Boston as he was coming off the water Wednesday?
We don’t have historic ballparks or epic curses or season ticket waiting lists in Tampa Bay. We barely have enough money to keep the cheap seats filled and the payrolls competitive.
But don’t take that to mean Tampa Bay doesn’t have a love affair with its teams and doesn’t deserve moments like this, or this remarkable string of championship runs from the Bucs, Rays and Lightning.
So party on, Tampa Bay. Celebrate proudly and loudly, because you have it coming.
Just do it a little responsibly, too, eh?
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.
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