A DREAM COME TRUE
If the journey started in December 1982 with Channel 4's coverage of the Bucs beating the Dolphins, it reached its end when Malcolm Glazer hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy into the San Diego night.
From the moment when Ronde Barber returned that errant Donovan McNabb pass 92 yards to a silenced Veterans Stadium, my place at Qualcomm Stadium a week later seemed certain.
There were tears of joy and happiness in my living room as the realisation dawned that the Bucs were finally going to the Super Bowl. The calls and e-mails started almost immediately, the obvious question being "you are going aren't you?"
Well not definitely. But once the confirmation of a ticket came through from the Buccaneers on the Tuesday evening, everything fell into place. Phil Jones was of course already in San Diego for his 12th Super Bowl, and his assistance got me a room in a hotel just a couple of miles from the airport. Prior to my arrival, he'd manage to wind Donovan McNabb up at a card show, and spend an evening telling embarrassing stories about me to Nick Halling and Charles Balchin from Sky Sports.
The flight from Heathrow was livened up by meeting Jerry, a 26-year season ticket holder from Tampa who had been working in Budapest. We managed to toast pretty much every Buc player in franchise history by the time we crossed into California. I'd even managed to be asked for my autograph back at Heathrow by some total muppet who'd seen me presenting Sky's coverage.
The 11-hour flight wasn't enough to detract from an immediate night out, first at the NFL Experience and then a meal out with a bunch of the guys from The Tampa Tribune. The Experience is a collection of card shows, merchandise events, film shows and simulators that had around 50,000 people attending, unfortunately about twice the number that the venue was capable of holding. But the night out with the likes of Nick Pugliese, Martin Fennelly and Roy Cummings was one of the highlights of the whole week, Martin coming out with some cracking comments that had Phil and I in stitches.
Saturday was ticket collection day and the two of us ventured up to the Bucs' team hotel in Torrey Pines, some ten miles out of town. We had the chance to meet with John Idzik, Wayne Fontes and several members of the front office before Mike Newquist made me a very happy man with a ticket in the Plaza section on the 40-yard line.
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|The Bucs take the field|
|The opening kickoff|
|Aaron Stecker returns the kick|
|Mike Alstott scores a TD|
|The Bucs' defense were the stars|
If the NFL Experience had been packed out on the Friday, it was total lunacy on the Saturday. The queue to get in was around three hours' worth, although thanks to knowing people, this was not a problem! One of the highlights once you got in, was a NFL Films show. Every Tampa Bay touchdown was greeted with cheers from the Buc fans in the audience, and vice versa for the Raider fans.
The Bucs were outnumbered around 10-1 in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego, the main nightlife district. Thousands of Raider fans had driven down the coast from Oakland and Los Angeles, although all the locals wanted the Bucs to win as the Chargers absolutely despise the Raiders.
Gameday dawned warm and sunny. The trolley bus service delivered us at the stadium some five hours before gametime, but thousands of fans were already there. You couldn't drive anywhere near the stadium and security was almost ridiculously over-the-top. We had a chance to chat with Channel 5's Mike Webster having already met with Steve Young and Ron Jaworski, before getting into Qualcomm shortly after 11.30.
Phil's seat was in the upper deck amongst a bunch of friendly Raider fans. I was with all the Bucs' contigent, although a couple of Oakland fans found their way into our row. The pre-game shows dragged on as did the introductions, but finally game time rolled around. The Bucs and the Raiders. Super Bowl XXXVII.
Without repeating the events on the field that have been recounted by journalists far more worthy of the title than myself, the game itself was simply a dream. The Bucs went ahead for good in the second quarter, and were 20-3 up at half-time. "It's not over" came the cry from Raider and sceptical Buc fans alike, but a nine minute drive capped by Keenan McCardell's second TD put the game out of reach, followed immediately by Dwight Smith's score for a 34-3 lead.
All around me, Buc fans were hugging each other in disbelief and Raider fans were leaving all over the stadium. I turned around to see Bucs' ticket director Mike Newquist a few rows behind. I pointed to my finger and then him indicating how he was in line for a Super Bowl ring with a Tampa Bay victory - his happy nod assured me he was as much aware of the fact as I was.
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|Happy Buc fans|
|More happy Buc fans|
|The Buc contingent|
|New friends everywhere|
I'll admit there were a few worried looks when the Raiders pulled the score back to 34-21 at one point in the fourth quarter, but they were never going to score against our first-string defense had we needed a stop. Derrick Brooks score sealed the victory and Dwight Smith's second one was the icing on the cake. Buc fans everywhere were crying with happiness, taking pictures of the scoreboard, of each other, and then of the massive celebrations on the field.
Some two hours after the final gun, I found Phil outside the stadium smoking an enormous cigar that someone had given him. There were no Raider fans anywhere in site, just thousands and thousands of happy Buccaneer fans.
And don't believe for a minute that there was no orange in the stadium - a lot of Buc fans were wearing Buccaneer Bruce colours and logos to show their allegiance since the bad old days. I even wore mine to the Buc team hotel the day before.
Phil and I decided to celebrate with a meal at a decent downtown restaurant, a good choice when the Broncos' Terrell Davis came over to our table to congratulate us on supporting a winning team. The Super Bowl souvenirs were all half price next day although Bucs champion merchandise was selling fast and furious. And after a great meal at Junior Seau's restaurant, and the bonus of being upgraded to business class with free champagne only put the icing on the cake.