Bucs' British backers get chance to welcome team 'home'
Ronde Barber has played cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 13 seasons. The team's elder statesman is well versed in Bucs history. He has made a lot of it. He has seen even more.
Yet not even Barber was aware that when the Bucs crossed the Atlantic this week to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday at London's Wembley Stadium, they flew into the loving arms of the longest-running and arguably best-organized NFL fan club in the British Isles.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers United Kingdom Supporters (Bucs UK), founded in 1984, will celebrate its 25th anniversary Sunday by watching the beloved, bumbling Bucs try to win their first game of the season. Live. In person. Almost all of the club's 317 members, nestled comfortably together among what is sure to be an otherwise partisan Patriots crowd.
"That's unbelievable," Barber said. "I don't know if it's a testament to us, or a testament to the game. Maybe they just liked our uniforms back then. I don't know. Something drew them to Tampa."
What, exactly, did draw them to Tampa? When there were so many other teams to choose from -- teams that, say, didn't start their existence 0-26 or miss the playoffs for 14 consecutive years (1983-96) -- why did a right-thinking group of British men, women and children embrace the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a quarter century ago?
Blame Mike Washington, a football player. And Ross Biddiscombe, a journalist. But most of all, blame Paul Stewart, the club's founder, head-fan-in-charge and administrator of a website, bucpower.com, that even members of the Bucs organization turn to occasionally for research.
Yes, it does take some explaining. Best to start at the beginning. In the autumn of 1982, the British Broadcasting Company's new and edgy Ch. 4 brought the decidedly un-British novelty of American football to the airwaves of the United Kingdom.
Stewart, then a 17-year-old soccer enthusiast from Surrey with journalistic ambitions, decided out of curiosity to tune in to Ch. 4 one December evening during a taped broadcast of highlights from a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Enthralled, Stewart watched the team with the winking, be-feathered pirate on its helmets win 23-17. Tampa Bay's victory wasn't assured until defensive back Mike Washington outfought Dolphins receiver Duriel Harris to intercept a Don Strock pass at the Bucs goal line on the final play.
Stewart remembers every detail. The Dolphins wore teal. The Bucs wore Creamsicle orange. It was the night he pledged his allegiance to Buccaneers Nation. "If Mike Washington hadn't intercepted that pass in the end zone," Stewart said, "I might be running dolphinpower.com now, instead of bucpower.com."
Washington, who played for the Bucs for nine seasons before retiring in 1984, now works as a recreation director in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., and spends his fall Saturdays serving as a field judge in Southeastern Conference football games.
When reached by phone this week, Washington said he remembers that '82 Dolphins game well. "I had two interceptions in that game, and the last one stopped the last drive that Miami was putting on to catch up," Washington said. "So, yeah, I remember the game and the play."
But he was unaware of his seminal role in helping the Bucs plant their flag so securely on British soil. He chuckled as he considered it. "I just heard about it the first time today," Washington said, "and I've been laughing about it all afternoon."
After that first gridiron epiphany, it would be two more years before Stewart had company in the club, or before the club even officially existed. That's when Biddiscombe entered Bucs UK lore. Today, the Hamstead resident is an author and freelance journalist while also lecturing at the London School of Journalism. In the early '80s, when football American-style still was a bit of a mystery outside the U.S., Biddiscombe edited a football magazine called Gridiron UK.
"In those days, in the mid-'80s, there was nobody around [covering American football]," Biddiscombe said. "Nothing to read, no Internet, nothing for people with American football fanaticism to do but ring me or reread everything they'd read the past month."
Naturally, teenaged Paul Stewart, American football convert and freshly minted Bucs fanatic, rang Biddiscombe. And rang. And rang. Eventually, Biddiscombe suggested that Stewart write a letter soliciting other readers to join a new club dedicated to the Buccaneers.
"We started off with six members," Stewart said. "The Dirty Half-Dozen. And it just started growing through word of mouth. Because in those days, the Bucs were really [bad]. So, we were a joke. You know, the Bucs fan club, you're supporting the worst team in the NFL, so it was a bit of a joke, a bit of a laugh."
Stewart mailed members a newsletter, the Buccaneer, which he eventually re-titled Wait 'Til Next Year. To gather information for the newsletter, he contacted then-Bucs public relations director Rick Odioso, who sent Stewart media guides and other Bucs-related publications.
"It's kind of commonplace now," Odioso said, "but I was just flabbergasted there was somebody from the U.K. calling and that he knew so much about the team."
Odioso said it was a special point of pride for former owner Hugh Culverhouse to be able to mention a Bucs fan club in Britain during interviews.
"You've got to understand, especially that time, they were something that we kind of clung to," Odioso said. "When you've got teams like the Cowboys, America's Team, if there were some people in the U.K. who were rising and falling with the Bucs, we loved it."
Membership slowly increased, even as the Bucs became the laughingstock of the NFL in the mid-1980s and into the mid-1990s. One reason people chose to follow the Bucs, Stewart said, was the steady flow of British tourists who flocked to Florida on holiday.
"You could easily get tickets to a Bucs game in those days," Stewart said. "You heard, 'I went to a game. What a great experience.' You remembered the scores. As you got into the game, you followed the stats and you find out there's a Bucs fan club. That's how a lot of people got involved. The other reason is, a lot of people feel sorry for us."
The cozy relationship between British Bucs fans and the organization has endured during the past two decades. When the Bucs' current owner, Malcolm Glazer, purchased Manchester United five years ago, the Britain-Tampa connection was further cemented. Tampa Bay's appearance this year at Wembley is due in no small part to the Glazer family's input with the league.
"The benefits are immeasurable," said Bucs vice president of business administration Brian Ford. "It's a unique opportunity for this organization to represent the NFL and our great game on an international level. Certainly, it's a well-deserved reward for our extended fan base, which is very active in London, but it is also an opportunity for us to expand it."
In the late '80s, club members began to trickle across the Atlantic to attend occasional games at old Tampa Stadium. Stewart was the team's guest of honor during his first visit in 1988, watching from the sideline in his orange No. 9 jersey as the Bears beat the Bucs.
He has seen them in person 11 times and has a personal record of 7-4. "1-0 in Super Bowls," he said.
Nothing will surpass the feeling of witnessing the Bucs reach Super Bowl XXXVII and defeat the Raiders, Stewart said. But this weekend could come close.
"Because it's the Bucs, it's a very, very special feeling," Stewart said. "And I know [Bucs chairmen] Bryan and Joel Glazer were very keen to do it because they're very appreciative of the support we've shown them over the years. ... What a way to celebrate our 25th anniversary. A lot of our guys have never been to Florida, have never gotten the chance to see the Bucs play live. Now, they've got the chance to do it."
Carter Gaddis, CBS Sports.com 23 October 2009