Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 29 December 1997

It was on a clear and cold night, in front of a stadium full of fans who refused to go home, that tomorrow finally came for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was never-never land. The fireworks exploded over the stadium, and the music blasted from the loudspeakers, and the fans cheered again and again. Bucs players wandered around the field, occasionally embracing each other, and the fans cheered that too.

What's harder to imagine than the Bucs in the playoffs? Try imagining the Bucs succeeding there. The Tampa Bay Bucs, the NFL's doormat franchise for most of the past 15 seasons, won their first-round playoff game against the Detroit Lions, 20-10, Sunday evening. Instead of the normal Bucs conversations at the New Year's party - such as who the new coach might be, who the No. 1 draft pick might be, or whether the franchise will move to another city - Bucs fans find themselves only two steps from the Super Bowl.

Say this for Houlihan's Stadium: It knows how to throw a going-out-of-business sale. This was probably the last Bucs game here - they would host the NFC championship game only if they beat the Packers next week and the Vikings upset the 49ers - but there have been few more memorable moments. The Bucs swarmed the visiting Lions, taking a 20-0 lead and holding on. Star running back Barry Sanders, who had 14 consecutive 100-yard games on his way to 2,053 this season, was held to only 65 yards on 18 carries. Two Bucs runners, Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, had more.

But as memorable as the game was, the moments afterward were more so. After Trent Dilfer took a knee to run out the final seconds, he leapt into the arms of teammate Robb Thomas. Feels like the first time . . . like it never will again.

As the music played, defensive tackle Brad Culpepper ran to a Bucs cheerleader and grabbed his Buccaneers banner, then began a victory lap. Teammate Warren Sapp saw Culpepper and did the same. "I had seen the players from Jacksonville do that last year in a celebration after they beat Denver," Culpepper said. "My wife, Monica, suggested that if we won, I should do the same thing."

"I was just so overcome with the fans," Sapp said. "I saw what 'Pep was doing, and I thought I'd do the same thing. I couldn't make a whole lap, though."

Remember the controversy that accompanied the vote for a new stadium tax? Remember how opponents of the tax couldn't figure out why proponents wanted to pay to keep this franchise? This is why. It was difficult to determine who this meant more to, the players or the fans who had waited so long. The crowd was largely dressed in red, but there was enough orange to remind you where this team had been. They leaned over the railing and they cheered every Buc within hearing distance - Mike Alstott and Trent Dilfer and Tony Dungy. Especially Dungy.

This is what it is like when the suffering stops. This is the team that could never replace John McKay or Doug Williams or Lee Roy Selmon. This is the team that suffered through the ownership of Hugh Culverhouse and the coaching of Ray Perkins and Sam Wyche and the quarterbacking of Vinny Testaverde and Jack Thompson and the draft picks of Keith McCants and Charles McRae. This is a team that has always drafted in the top 10 and always finished in the bottom. For 15 seasons, the Bucs have been a conga line of bad management, bad play and bad planning. Now? Now they are a winner.

In the playoffs and beyond. Have you ever seen water poured across scorched earth, the way the dry soil soaks up the liquid? That was how the Bucs players were in the middle of the applause. Alstott went into the locker room, then came back out to exchange applause with the fans. Dilfer shot a fist skyward as he went past. It was a lovefest, town and team, and no one wanted to point out that a victory in a wild card game isn't exactly heaven. Sunday night, it felt that way.

If anyone could appreciate the moment, it had to be offensive tackle Paul Gruber who, like the fans, didn't want the night to end. A thousand bad games, it seems, he has wished for a better day, through these promises and those, through this speech and that one. After the game, Gruber kept wandering around the stadium, looking at the fireworks, listening to the crowd. "I just wanted to take it all in," he said. "I've been here through a lot of the bad times waiting for tonight. It was tremendous."

He laughed. "A lot of our young guys probably think it's always been this way."

As we all know, it hasn't been. But in the euphoria of the moment, with the stands still clattering above him, with the music still playing, you could imagine that from now on, it always will be.