In Early Days, Bucs Were More Entertaining Off The Field Than On
by Chris Ford of The Tampa Tribune
Nobody cared. Not the community. Not the media. In my three years (1987-89) as Bucs beat writer for The Tampa Tribune, the laughingstock of professional sports franchises won 14 games - and two of those victories were produced by replacements during the NFL players' strike in 1987. If the Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, it will be their 15th win of the season.

Now, everyone cares. More than 45,000 people are on a waiting list for Bucs season tickets. When I covered the team, there seldom were more than 35,000 people at Tampa Stadium when the Bucs played. In those days, beat writers received two complimentary season tickets. Somewhere in a box of memorabilia are unused tickets from those dreadful seasons. You couldn't give them away.

The Tampa Bay media contingent in San Diego is one of the largest from one metropolitan area in Super Bowl history. When the Bucs played the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim, Calif., during the 1987 regular season, I was the only reporter from the Tribune at the game. Kickoff was at 4 p.m. Tampa time. The game ended at 7. Deadline was 10:30. The Rams won 35-3. I wrote a game story, two sidebars, a notebook and telephoned quotes to sports editor Tom McEwen, who was writing The Morning After column from his Davis Islands home. I kept the best quotes for myself. McEwen saw them the next day. He was not happy.

I took a red-eye flight home from California after my stories were transmitted by word processor and arrived in Tampa at 7:30 a.m. Monday. Staying an extra night at a hotel was considered an unnecessary expense. ``Be frugal,'' McEwen always reminded us when we went on the road.

Be frugal, whatever it took. If that meant sleeping on the floor in a hotel room shared by four other people, fine. If that meant catching a ride with a reporter from another newspaper instead of renting a car, so be it. If it meant a $4.95 salad bar instead of a $20 steak dinner, by all means, be frugal. Nobody cared. Except me. Except us. Except the people who covered the Bucs on a daily basis with the enthusiasm and competitiveness of journalists covering playoff contenders and Super Bowl teams.

We owned One Buc Place. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. My last season as beat writer was 13 years ago. It might as well have been 50. Recently, I went to One Buc Place to do a story. I needed a combination to unlock the gate to the media trailer. We had to be escorted to the locker room. We were not allowed to watch practice. The only person I recognized - or who recognized me - was the guy serving lunch to the players. Even Frankie Pupello, the longtime equipment manager, was gone. You could always count on Frankie being there, long into the night, loading washing machines with tons of dirty laundry.

In the late '80s, we interviewed injured players on the porch behind the locker room while practice was going on. We hired a stripper for Coach Ray Perkins' birthday. She just walked right into the trailer. Perkins squirmed in his seat. We celebrated the end of one season with a late-night party in the trailer - food, beer, fun - and no one asked what we were doing there. The beat was the focal point of my existence. The beat was my life. Nothing was more satisfying than picking up a rival newspaper in the morning and finding out you had kicked their butt on a story. By any means.

After Perkins was hired before the 1987 season, there were rumors the Bucs would trade quarterback Steve Young. The Bucs weren't talking. Never a problem. I asked a friend with a travel agency to keep checking flights from Salt Lake City, Utah, where Young lived, to Tampa. One day, he was on the list of passengers. Young arrived at Tampa International Airport late one night. I talked to him and got the story, which appeared in the Tribune the next morning. The ``competition'' had a story about Young, in absentia, with a headline that said: ``Where's Steve Young?''

During the players' strike, I sat for hours in the Westshore Hilton lobby, along with my Tribune collaborators in sneakiness, Joey Johnston and Chris Harry, who shared my enthusiasm for undercover work. The Hilton was where the Bucs put up prospective players. One day, we recognized Jim Zorn, former Seattle Seahawks quarterback, and talked to him. It was exhilarating to walk into Perkins' office - that was easy to do, too - and know something you weren't supposed to know. ``What about Jim Zorn?''
``Who?''
``Jim Zorn, the quarterback.''
``Don't know nothing about him.''
``Sure you do - you just signed him.''

The strike sabotaged Perkins' first season. Ticked him off. Made him ornery. I loved the strike, especially when several players from the USFL Tampa Bay Bandits, who were more popular during their three years of existence (1983-85) than the Bucs, were signed to the replacement squad that played three games before the regulars returned. There was defensive end James Ramey, who while with the Bandits told me a story about being abducted by a UFO. It was Ramey who proclaimed, ``We are the Scabaneers.''

There was offensive lineman Chuck Pitcock, who never felt so much pleasure as when he stood in the middle of the Bucs locker room, wearing only a jock, a dip of Copenhagen in his bottom lip, realizing that for one brief moment, he was experiencing the lifelong dream of being an NFL player. ``They'll never take this away from me, Tommy.''

The regulars weren't so happy with the media, especially when we covered the strike games. Striking players were working out at Jefferson High School the day after I covered the replacements' first game, a 31-27 victory against the Detroit Lions at the almost-empty Pontiac Silverdome. Jeff Davis, one of the league's hardest-hitting linebackers at 250 pounds, taunted me from the middle of the field: ``Scab team, scab reporter.''

Davis kept talking. At the time, I was 36 years old, cocky and could bench-press 300 pounds. As Davis jabbered, I motioned him to the sideline, saying, ``Come on ... come on.''

I thought about Will McDonough of The Boston Globe. McDonough had responded to being shoved by New England Patriots player Raymond Clayborn by knocking him out with a punch to the jaw. Davis exhibited a bit more maturity than me by remaining on the field, probably a fortunate development for the scab reporter. There were confrontations with Perkins over the years, too, but I enjoyed them. I think he liked people who stood up for themselves. He also liked the women, which was evident in the relationship he tried to establish with a female beat reporter. One day, the reporter returned visibly shaken to the trailer after meeting with Perkins in his office. ``He said he wanted to take a picture of my eyes,'' she said. ``I felt creepy.''

She explained that she had the distinct feeling Perkins meant something else when he said ``eyes.'' From that day, she arranged her seat in the trailer behind a wall so that if Perkins stuck his head in the door - as he often did unannounced - he would not know she was there. All of these happenings during my three years as Bucs beat writer kept us entertained, which was a good thing, because the football certainly didn't.

Tom Ford, Pasco County sports coordinator for The Tampa Tribune, covered the Bucs from 1987 through 1989.