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When the Bucs finally won: Up on a roof, and on top of the world

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans celebrate the first win in franchise history, a  33-14 at New Orleans on Dec. 11, 1977 -- 40 years ago Monday. TIMES ARCHIVES.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans celebrate the first win in franchise history, a 33-14 at New Orleans on Dec. 11, 1977 -- 40 years ago Monday. TIMES ARCHIVES.
Published Dec. 9, 2017

On Jan. 19, 1977, something happened in Tampa that, well, simply doesn't. We had heard of it, seen pictures of it, maybe even visited it, but beyond that, it was something those of us who grew up here thought we'd never see.

Snow, in Tampa.

Now looking back on it 40 years later, that winter wonderland — okay, it melted away by midmorning — was only a warmup.

Because Tampa Bay, you hadn't seen anything yet.

Fast forward toward the end of the year. I was 17, three months into my senior year at Tampa Catholic, a role player on the basketball team to put it nicely and now to satisfy my aging ego, and frankly, there were three loves in my life: the Gators, beating Jesuit, and the Bucs.

The first was a lifelong love affair of frustration and cries of "wait'll next year," and the second was an ongoing love/hate relationship that didn't occur nearly enough in my four years at TC.

But the third, this was something new that started only a year earlier when my town gave birth to an NFL franchise. The relationship started out rocky, the likes of which had never been seen. No professional sports team had ever started this badly.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first 26 games in existence. 0-26. They were the laughingstock of the league and the nation as legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made them seemingly a nightly staple of his monologue with digs such as, "How do the Bucs count? 0-1, 0-2, 0-3 …?"

It never stopped, but we continued to go sit in the often-sweltering Tampa Stadium on those oh-so uncomfortable aluminum bleachers, or tune in to every road game on TV. And every week it was the same result: another loss. You were simply happy if they completed a pass or made a first down. And a touchdown? Those were so rare that when it happened, you savored it for weeks because that's about the length of time the next one might occur.

But despite the mounting losses almost keeping pace with the number of jokes, you never stopped going into each Sunday thinking: Is this the one?

Then came Dec. 11, 1977, a 1 o'clock game at New Orleans. And while those thoughts were still there, you knew in all likelihood that 0-26 would soon be 0-27, then 0-28, then Heeeeerrrrre's Johnny.

I'd love to say I could see something special coming, or my dad could as we almost always attended or watched the games together. Once games would get out of hand, he'd sometimes go outside and take out his frustration on the yard. Our hedges never stood a chance.

But on this day, the hedges got a reprieve.

The Bucs finally won, 33-14. And as odd as it might sound when you're a fan of a team that's 0-26, the game was really never in doubt.

So now what? How do we celebrate this? I remember turning on the radio, trying to soak in every bit of information and not let this feeling end. Somehow word started spreading about greeting the Bucs when they arrived back in town that night. I called my friend Paul from TC, he too an avid Bucs fan. More importantly, he had a car and I didn't. We were soon on our way.

Frankly, the details of the night are pretty much a blur, which saddens me. But that euphoric feeling isn't. Maybe that's how it's supposed to be after 40 years: forget the details, remember the feeling.

What I do remember is us trying to get to the Tampa Airport to greet the team but were stopped. Police were telling fans to go to the Bucs' nearby headquarters on West Shore Boulevard north of Spruce Street, so we did, along with thousands of others.

I remember seeing the lines of cars and the crowds growing, spilling over to the nearby Hall of Fame golf course across the street and the hotel next to the Bucs' headquarters. I remember Swashbuckler cheerleaders on the roof, I think it was the hotel, and a band playing. I remember the team buses finally arriving for what I was sure was in the wee hours of a school night. (I looked it up this week, and it was only around 8:30).

And I remember Paul and I joining others on the roof of the Bucs' facility, a dumpy building near where International Plaza is today. We weren't up there long before we were ordered to get down, but we truly felt, even for a brief moment, like the rest of Tampa Bay that night: We were on top of the world.

So on Dec. 11, 1977, something happened in Tampa that, well, simply doesn't. The Bucs won.

First snow, now a Bucs win. Bring on Jesuit.

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