Brit won't let ocean come between him and his Bucs
Paul Stewart never will forget the cool Monday night in November 1982, when Tampa Bay cornerback Mike Washington picked off a Don Strock pass at the goal line to preserve a Tampa Bay Buccaneers victory over the Miami Dolphins. How could he?

Stewart, then an aspiring journalist living in Ashtead, England, fell in love with a football team an ocean away that night. Since then, through richer and poorer, better and worse, his passion has only grown stronger.

It has, in fact, spawned not only a family of some 300 UK-based Bucs fans who will gather Sunday to watch the Bucs take on the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium, but a Web site that rivals any in terms of Bucs news, notes and history.

The site, launched in 2002, includes profiles of everyone who has played for the Bucs, a detailed report on every game in franchise history and an in-depth archive devoted to the 1976 expansion team.

It also contains a 7,400-image photo archive detailing the 33-year history of the Bucs, current news, notes and commentary on the team and a memorial devoted to Bucs players, coaches and executives who have passed away.

"I suppose that if Mike Washington hadn't intercepted that pass the website would have been instead of,'' said Stewart, 44, an operations manager for IBM.

Now a resident of Weybridge, a suburb of London, he can't watch NFL games live on TV, so he watches them on his computer, which gets a feed from a friend in Tarpon Springs whose TV is set up to a Slingbox unit that transmits the signal through a broadband connection.

Before the Internet, Stewart got his Bucs news either by watching the hourlong NFL highlight package presented by British TV's Channel 4 or listening to the game of the week offered live on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

It was during the third Channel 4 broadcast of NFL action that Stewart caught the highlights of that Bucs-Dolphins game, but he seems to relish more his days listening for scores on AFRN. "How many fans would do that?'' Stewart asked. "That signal was pretty bad sometimes. But I'd sit there and wait for those Bucs scores. I sort of wear that like a badge of honor.''

Something else Stewart wears is his passion for the Bucs. It's often visible on his sleeve. Such was the case when Ronde Barber assured the Bucs of a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII by intercepting Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb in the 2002 NFC title game.

"I cried when he made that play,'' Stewart said, "because I knew then that we were going to the Super Bowl, and I couldn't help but think of all that the fans and the players had been through for all those years. Everyone had gone through so much, from 1976 on, and it was just a very emotional moment. I was just so happy that we were actually going to the Super Bowl. It was amazing.''

Perhaps the only thing more amazing was Stewart's trip to San Diego a few weeks later for the Super Bowl, which the Bucs won in dominant fashion, beating the Oakland Raiders 48-21 at Qualcomm Stadium. "That was the best,'' Stewart said. "Even if the Bucs win 10 Super Bowls, there will never be another one like that one. That first one will always be the most special one to me.''

That trip to San Diego wasn't the only time Stewart has seen the Bucs play live. He's flown across the Atlantic seven times for games and even attended training camp a couple of times. He was even among those who witnessed live the Bucs' first game in Raymond James Stadium, and never will forget the red-carpet treatment he got from the team.

"We'd been over for a game a few times before that, and on one occasion we met (Bucs co-chairman) Joel Glazer,'' Stewart said. "He said that if we came back he'd take care of us, and he really did.''

Stewart and a group of family members and friends sat in the front row on the 50-yard line, right behind the Bucs' bench for that inaugural game at RJS. Stewart will have a similar set up for Sunday's game at Wembley.

On this occasion, though, he won't be surrounded by just a few members of the Bucs' UK fan club. He'll be surrounded by nearly every member of the club that started with a letter posted in a UK football magazine in 1984.

"It was just a letter asking if anyone was interested in joining a UK Bucs fan club,'' Stewart said. "Six people responded, and it's just steadily grown from there.''

The Web site, which has drawn 3.4 million hits, according to Stewart, grew from humble beginnings, too. It started as a magazine called "There's Always Next Year,'' a phrase often repeated by Bucs fans back in the 1980s.

So far, this season figures to be a lot like those the Bucs had when Stewart first discovered them. That hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. After watching the Bucs at Wembley, he plans to fly to Tampa for their game Nov. 8 against Green Bay. The team will wear its orange 1976 uniforms and make first-ever draft pick Lee Roy Selmon its inaugural Ring of Honor inductee.

"I've got to be there for the throwback game, and to see them unveil the Ring of Honor,'' he said. "I can't wait for it. It's going to be really special. Just like this game here on Sunday. And, sure, we all want to see the Bucs win. Of course, we do. But I feel like you can't really appreciate the winning until you've suffered through the losing. I guess Bucs fans know that as well as anyone. I know I do.''

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 24 October 2009