Planting a flag
Paul Stewart founded “Bucs UK,” the bravura Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan club based in London, in 1984 with five other original members. In the 25 intervening years, the club’s membership has swelled to over 300 and Stewart’s historical Buccaneer knowledge has expanded even further, both in his head and on the Bucs UK website,

For instance, Stewart has a record of every Mike Alstott touchdown on, and he can probably describe most of those 71 scores in great detail. But it’s doubtful that any Alstott touchdown run will live more vividly in Stewart’s mind than the one recorded Saturday afternoon at Richmond Park in South London.

That’s because it was Stewart himself who delivered the handoff to the former Buccaneer great, sending him over left guard for an easy one-yard score. As he turned from the line with his arms raised, Stewart joyfully yelled, in his best Gene Deckerhoff impression, “Alstott up the gut!”

No, there was no defense on the field at the time and both Stewart and Alstott were in jeans. This was an exhibition flag football game staged by Stewart and featuring two squads clad in Buccaneers and Patriots jerseys. Alstott was wearing a red #40 jersey gleefully handed over to him moments earlier straight off the back of one of the club members. The opposing team was still warming up nearby and Stewart purposely announced that his pass to Alstott moments earlier had gotten down to the one-yard line, all to set up the memorable handoff.

Obviously one of the most passionate Buccaneer fans anywhere – which could be said of all the Bucs UK members in attendance – Stewart was thrilled by the moment.

“It just got past a certain night in San Diego,” said Stewart, referring to the Bucs’ Super Bowl XXXVII win in January of 2003. “It’s not often I’m left speechless but [these] guys have left me speechless, and every other Buccaneer fan here today.”

NFL Films was on hand to document the event, as they continued their week-long coverage of the Bucs and Patriots trip to London for Sunday’s much-anticipated game at Wembley Stadium. The two teams are most concerned with getting a victory out of their Week Seven matchup, but they are also eager to be ambassadors for the game outside of the United States. In few places was this accomplished more successfully than at Richmond Park on Saturday.

In fact, the Bucs UK members would probably have been satisfied simply by the pregame festivities. As the two flag teams were gathering, a trio of vehicles for the Buccaneers’ team hotel pulled up, and out spilled Alstott, Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon and former Pro Bowl linebacker Shelton Quarles. Stewart and company knew a Buccaneer contingent would attend the game but had no idea it would include three of the most popular alumni in franchise history.

“It means so much to [the club members],” said Stewart. “Most of these guys have never been over to Florida. They’ve had to watch all the games on TV. Suddenly here they are, in a park in South London with Mike Alstott, Lee Roy Selmon and Shelton Quarles. I can’t believe it and they can’t believe it but I can tell you this: They’re never going to forget it.”

The morning was a little damp but pleasant, and the park was beautiful. The field itself was relatively small and obviously visited by numerous wild animals, but the game had all the outings of a real Buccaneer contest. There were Buccaneers Cheerleaders, mascot Captain Fear, team captains and cheering fans. There was no apparent score kept, but sideline observers believed Stewart’s crew got the upper hand on the Patriots-clad squad.

“I think there’s a little talent out there,” said Selmon as the teams prepared to start the game. “They’re taking it seriously, warming up and everything. They’re going to go out there and play hard, have some fun. The main thing is just some good camaraderie among the guys.”

The Bucs UK history reaches back into the last few seasons of Selmon’s career, and the former Buccaneer great is well aware of what Stewart and his friends have accomplished over the years. For all the Buccaneers, it was a heartwarming feeling to travel so far and still find such personal support.

“To finally have a chance to meet Paul Stewart and see the enthusiasm of the club up close and in person is pretty impressive,” said Selmon. “You have to really appreciate that and be thankful for it. We had an eight-hour journey, and to find a club that has the enthusiasm of this one, and the history, over 25 years of supporting the Bucs is pretty impressive.”

Stewart took his turns at quarterback for the Bucs squad, throwing a nice spiral and, more impressively, rattling off play calls that sounded as complicated as anything in the team’s playbooks through the years…for effect, of course. Like the rest of Saturday’s players, Stewart was simply ecstatic to see his support through the years returned by the Buccaneers.

“I’m in awe of them and suddenly I’ve got Lee Roy Selmon saying he’s in awe of what I’ve done,” said Stewart, shaking his head. “I’m just a guy from England who supports the Buccaneers. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Scott Smith, 25 October 2009