TAMPA — Please take a seat, if you can find one.
Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford is asking fans to not delay getting into Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night. “We don’t want you to miss the pre-game ceremony here because you’re going to be a part of it,” he said.
More than 67,000 fans are expected as the Bucs host the Dallas Cowboys to kick off the entire NFL season.
For the Bucs, it should have the feel of a heavyweight champ ascending into the ring. The Super Bowl 55 banner will be raised, no matter how much they try to lower the bravado.
“It’s going to be exciting in just that moment,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “But once it’s time to play football you have to get it out of your head. It’s a whole new year. We’re the 2021 Buccaneers now. There’s no more 2020 Buccaneers. We just can’t be distracted by it. ...
“(But) there are going to be some goosebumps when we’re walking in there.”
The Bucs became the first team to play and win a Super Bowl in their home stadium by defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 on Feb. 7. But only 24,845 were in attendance — unless you count the cardboard cutouts — due to the pandemic.
That makes Thursday’s game the biggest at Raymond James Stadium since 2003, the season after the Bucs won Super Bowl 37. The NFL made Tampa Bay open that year against the Eagles at newly christened Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
For perspective, consider that Bucs quarterback Tom Brady was in his third full season as a starter with the Patriots.
It’s been nearly two decades since the Bucs have played in an atmosphere like what is expected Thursday.
To find anything that approximates it, think back to that Monday Night Football game in 2003 when Tony Dungy returned to Tampa Bay as head coach of the Colts and Indianapolis overcame a 35-14 deficit in the final four minutes to win 38-35 in overtime.
“All those games (in 2003) were sold out, but they were sold out with individual game tickets,” Ford said. “It wasn’t like what we’re about to experience. This is going back to the Super Bowl year when we had 200,000 on a waiting list. ...
“It’s the electricity. When you go: ‘Tampa! Bay!’ Our events team has done some planning and they are ready to do some things you could never do with 16,000 or 40,000 people. ... Get loud and bring this place the homefield advantage we remember and haven’t experienced in so long. And we get to do it on the largest stage, the kickoff to the 2021 (NFL) season.”
With seven Super Bowl rings, Brady is no stranger to big games. But due to last year’s COVID-19 restrictions, he has never witnessed Raymond James Stadium in all its rabid glory.
“Anytime you start the season, it’s the first game of the season, it’s pretty exciting,” Brady said. “I know the stadium will be packed and it will be an exciting night for all of us.
“I think it’s butterflies. It’s kind of being anxious. You kind of put a lot into it. Emotionally, you’re at a super high point. You’re really focused. We’ve had some really good days of practice, it definitely feels like a regular-season week ... when you know everything counts, everything is in the books on this one. You want to be at your best.”
Brady said he spoke with former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber about what the stadium was like after they won Super Bowl 37.
“He said in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was one of the best places to play,” Brady said. “We all look forward to that. At the end of the day, we all love being out there on the stadium fields with the people cheering, and you want to go out there and perform well. We got a little taste of it in the preseason, but nothing like it (will be).”
The game will be nationally televised by NBC. Dungy will only need to make an 11-mile drive from his home in North Tampa to the stadium. He will be part of the studio crew with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth calling the game.
“You know, the opening is just fantastic,” Collinsworth said. “For us to get a chance to do Tampa and Dallas right off the bat, with so much intrigue, not only with Tampa and Tom Brady and what that team could possibly end up doing, but I think that (Dallas quarterback) Dak Prescott is possibly the most compelling opening day story that we’ve seen.
“Here’s a guy coming off the ankle (injury). He doesn’t practice because of the shoulder, and now he comes in against the world champs and the defense that shut down (Kansas City quarterback) Patrick Mahomes. That’s pretty good stuff.”
It’s also not cheap. The secondary ticket market for this game has seen prices skyrocket. A pair of tickets in the 300 (highest) level was selling for $1,957 on vividseats.com.
Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski, who spent nine seasons with the Patriots, has played in the NFL opening game before and doesn’t expect his teammates to be overwhelmed.
But he didn’t downplay the game’s significance.
“What I’m most excited about is the atmosphere. The preseason games were already pretty popping,” he said. “But to have a sold-out stadium, plus fans, it’s going to be pretty wild. It was loud in the Super Bowl and there were only 20,000 or so fans.”
Tampa Bay has been the home of huge sporting events over the past few years, including the NCAA women’s Final Four, College Football Playoff national championship, Stanley Cup Final and WrestleMania.
But coming off a limited capacity season, with a sellout crowd welcoming the defending Super Bowl champs is special.
“Super Bowl 55 was a Super Bowl when our community needed it most and an incredible catalyst for our community’s continuing recovery,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “For us to now have the honor of hosting NFL Kickoff is truly special for countless reasons. From having the eyes of the world on us with the start of the NFL season happening in our hometown and the safe return of a full stadium to getting a chance to collaborate with our family at the NFL again.
“We see this event as a really important moment in local sports history.”
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