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The kickoff twisted in the wind, high and short. All things considered, it couldn't have been in the air more than 32 years or so. Micheal Spurlock, instant legend, caught the ball and ran forward, where it seemed as if the usual disaster awaited him. If you have seen the Bucs' previous 1,864 attempts to return a kickoff, you are aware this sort of undertaking usually ends badly.
This time, however, Spurlock ran into history. He burst through a hole at the 20, The Place Where Bucs Kickoff Returns Go to Die. He veered right at the 25, where so many returns have been Just One Block Away. He picked up speed where others have encountered The Last Possible Tackler. He managed to avoid going Just Out of Bounds. In the end, he got into the end zone so fast there wasn't even time for the Needless Penalty Flag.
He did not trip and fall. He did not step in a hole. To coach Jon Gruden's surprise, he did not step out of bounds. Just like that, the Bucs finally had returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The most amazing part? Why, you lived to see it, didn't you?
Call it the Christmas Miracle of Micheal Spurlock, the improbable kid making the impossible return in the Bucs' 37-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Spurlock erased the final curse of a franchise when he returned a first-quarter kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Finally.
This had been the longest-running failure in the history of the NFL, an inexplicable series of disappointments. Think of it as a bad relay race, one where 140 runners take turns on a 37,485-yard journey to nowhere. No matter how good the Bucs were, no matter who the opponent was or where the game was played, the Bucs had always found a way to stop short of the end zone. Until Sunday.
Until Spurlock, the kid with the oversized grin, changed everything. "I was just thinking 'hit it,' " Spurlock said. "I was thinking 'Run, run, run.' I was thinking 'How far is that end zone?' "
Those who follow the Bucs would tell him that, as far as Bucs kickoff returns are concerned, it was somewhere on the other side of never. Since the team began play in 1976, there have been 303 kickoff returns for touchdowns by the other 31 teams; the Bucs had zero. To Spurlock, it seemed as if everyone on the other end of a conversation was aware of it.
Take Saturday afternoon. Spurlock was shopping in a Tampa mall with Mancel Curtis, his cousin. "I don't see any Micheal Spurlock jerseys," Curtis said. "Maybe if I take one to the house, there will be a couple," Spurlock answered.
Take Sunday morning. Spurlock was on his way to the game when Kenneth, his brother, called him. "When are you going to take one to the house?" Kenneth said. "It hasn't ever been done?" "How do you know?" Spurlock said. "You don't even like football."
When a man makes his living returning kicks for the Bucs, this is the way it goes. Lewis and Clark probably had the same problem before they found the Northwest Passage. Of course, their search was not as long. Even Derrick Brooks, the Bucs linebacker who has seen a few kickoff returns, had a message for Spurlock. "Today is the day you can make history," Brooks kept telling Spurlock. "You can be the one."
If it strikes you as odd that a barely known player would be the one to erase an age-old problem for the Bucs, well, it absolutely stuns Spurlock, too. Growing up in Mississippi, he always figured he would be a baseball player, even when he passed for nine touchdowns and ran for two others in a single high school game. Even when he wound up taking over for Eli Manning as the Ole Miss quarterback.
Before Sunday, Spurlock was just another reason to buy a program. He was on Arizona's practice squad last year, and he had been on the Bucs' practice squad twice.
As Spurlock lined up for the 13th kickoff return of his life, he wasn't particularly hopeful. Before the game, the sun had been in his face and the wind was blowing. "It might be a terrible day," he thought.
Next thing Spurlock knew, he was flying through an open hole. "That's when you start thinking 'Today could be the day,' " Spurlock said. "You see the guy running behind you, and you say, 'I can't let this guy catch me. You never know when you'll have this chance again. So let's go make history.' "
Around the country today, you figure that Aaron Stecker must be smiling. And Yo Murphy and Bobby Futrell and Michael Morton and all the rest. A Bucs kick returner finally made it to the other side. Thing is, Spurlock says he really isn't into the lore of the game. When you are a 24-year-old ending a 32-year-old drought, it's easy not to be.
"It's history," Spurlock said. "Like everyone says, it's etched in stone. Now everyone is going to ask when the second one is coming."
At this rate, it will come sometime late in 2039. Tell the returner to stay in bounds, will you?
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 17 December 2007