1. Bucs

When the Bucs finally won: Will any team 'feel that wanted again'?

Published Dec. 9, 2017

TAMPA — Are you going? What time? We're going. Don't we have to go? Who else is going?

The talk ran through the town like a main circuit.

There has never been a win like it in sports history, certainly not Bucs history, including the night the 2002 Bucs won the Super Bowl.

The 2017 Bucs are curling into their now annual fetal ball. No one knows what the end of this tunnel will look like. No one knows if the quarterback will keep his job or if the head coach will keep his.

So, let's remember a day when a community lost its mind. A win people will never forget.

Were you there?

Dec. 11, 1977. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, misery's stepchild, won their first game after 26 consecutive losses to begin their halting history in the National Football League.

The 0-26 Bucs. The Bucs no one had room for, such shut-ins they were consigned to the AFC their first season. The Bucs who scored 58 points, total, in 1977. The Bucs were so hapless that Johnny Carson made them his personal nightly punch line, and if he didn't, Bucs head coach John McKay did. The former USC coach was used to winning championships, and the Bucs often tested his quick wit and quicker temper.

McKay's straight men carried reporters' notebooks. When someone once asked McKay what he thought of his club's execution, he readied, aimed and fired.

"I'm in favor of it."

Those were the Bucs. That was Tampa Bay. A snapshot of a team and a town.

"We had the best fans in the world," said Dave Pear, a former Bucs defensive tackle and the team's first Pro Bowl selection. "I'm sure they still are. They were always there for us. We were in it together."

They rarely filled Tampa Stadium, the municipal sombrero, but just as rarely failed to get behind their only major professional sports franchise, even if it played like a minor. You paid $5 for an end-zone seat; $99 bought you a season ticket. Bargain basement, with a team to match.

The town embraced its ragamuffin team. It was the mutt at the pound they couldn't help but pick up. The Bucs showed up to play every week, in 1976 and into 1977, even as the infamy sped on and opponents were gripped by the fear of losing to them. Not them. Not the Bucs. They were like the people they played for, normal, regular. They put their pants on one loss at a time. They kept the faith.

"From whence you came points toward your future," former Bucs linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood said. "That team, we had a lot of whence."

"When you're 0-26, you only have yourselves," said David Lewis, another linebacker from those teams.

But they picked up fans. Chicago Bears iron man running back Walter Payton, the best and toughest player in football at the time, was one of them. "He'd tell us, 'You guys are killing me! You bust me up every time,'?" Lewis said. "He'd tell us to stick together, it would happen."

And then, one day, it did.

The 27th game in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was played at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. It all came together. McKay added some extra motivation when he purloined an alleged quote from Saints gentleman quarterback Archie Manning, who Payton said had told him that it would be a "disgrace" to lose to the Buccaneers.

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It was left to the team's thoughtful defensive star, former No. 1 draft pick Lee Roy Selmon, a gentle soul from a loving, God-fearing family in Eufaula, Okla., to rally the 0-26 Bucs. Everyone who was in the visitor's locker room remembers what Lee Roy said.

"This is going to be a different kind of day."

The Bucs won, 33-14. The defense made three touchdowns, with six interceptions off Manning and his replacement. A man named Mike Washington picked off Manning and raced in for a score. Washington thought about spiking the ball, but instead handed it to teammate Council Rudolph, who spiked it for him. Batman Wood scored after a pick and he dunked the football over a goalpost. A different kind of day.

In the locker room, grown men acted like little boys. It had been 1,298 days since Tampa Bay was awarded an NFL franchise.

The team took a chartered plane back to Tampa. FAA rules were disobeyed. There was dancing, and beer, in the aisles. Dick Crippen, the team's TV color man, was told he might have to handle a live broadcast because apparently "a few people" showing up at team headquarters.

"We had no idea what we were heading into," Crippen said. In Tampa, cars choked the exits. Police cordoned off West Shore Boulevard north of Spruce Street. People abandoned their vehicles and set out on foot. There was no time to waste. The guys were heading back.

The players knew it was a different kind of day when their buses' headlights caught the crowd. "Yeah, just a few people," Crippen said. "Like, 10,000 … I'd never seen anything like it. All those people. There was a couple that had driven up from Fort Myers and the interstate wasn't even down there yet, I think. That's what people did. That's what it meant."

People trampled bushes and climbed trees. Strangers hugged strangers. A man painted "Yea Bucs" on a pickup, stood on the flatbed and beat a large drum. It was Christmas morning. It was New Year's Eve. A town came together as if a war had just ended. In a way, it had.

Inside the buses, big, strong professional football players bit their lips. "It was emotional," Lewis said. "We were … wanted. We were wanted. We'd never felt wanted like that before. I'm not sure any team will ever feel that wanted again."

McKay stood on the hood of a car and addressed the crowd. There was a band playing. Bucs cheerleaders, the "Swashbucklers," danced on the roof of team headquarters, which eventually began to buckle. McKay turned to Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse and said, "Imagine if we'd won a Super Bowl.'' In New Orleans, writers began to type up where the Saints' loss stacked up in world history. One mentioned an 1887 flood in China that claimed 900,000 lives.

In Tampa, the crowd didn't leave for hours. As it finally did, Dave Pear was still leaning against his car in a parking lot, in front of a long line of women patiently waiting their turn to kiss him.

The next morning, the St. Petersburg Times displayed a front-page coupon for fans, for 50 cents, to mail a copy of the paper to: Johnny Carson. Eventually, the Bucs shipped a game ball to the Tonight Show.

Before that, the 1-12 Bucs took the field to finish their season against the St. Louis Cardinals in the final game of the 1977 season. They won that day, too. Like Saints coach Hank Stram, Cardinals coach Don Coryell was dismissed after the season.

Two years later, the Bucs played for the NFC title.

Batman Wood was in Philadelphia in 2003 when the Bucs won the NFC championship to go to the Super Bowl. He was in San Diego the following Sunday when the Bucs won it all. Wood cried both times. He cried for the journey, and for that first win, too, the day the laughter stopped. And the town showed up.

"I'm getting tears in my eyes right now," Wood said. "You just had to be there."

Well, were you?

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly


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