My Wembley weekend adventure started at 7 am on Friday 21st October 2011, when I set off for the Bucs practice facility at Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot. The drive in morning traffic took two and a bit hours, during which I wondered what awaited me later that day.
About half way around the M25, I did think that I should have gone on my motorbike so that I would have my lid with me for comparison with the real helmets, but there was no way by then that I could have made it home and back again in time and I’m sure I would not have made it in on the wrong vehicle so I pushed on.
After a little over two hours I arrived at a very plush resort where I was greeted by the assorted friends that make up the Bucs UK. After a short chat and catch up we were all ushered on to a grassed area next to the track to the practice field where we got to watch the players walk down for practice.
On a personal note, I also used the opportunity to pick one of the press photographer’s brains for hits and tips for photographing the practice and I got to play with his L series 400mm f2.8 lens… A very nice bit of kit that weighs a ton!
After the last players made it to the field, we got to walk down and stand on the bank and watch the Bucs going through their practice drills. I took this opportunity to try and hone my photographic skills and when Donald Penn suddenly threw the ball up towards us I had a moment of indecision… Should I drop the camera and go for the ball or keep my hands on my camera and borrowed lens? In the end, the decision was made for me as Steve stepped in front of me and punted the ball away.
While the Bucs marched up and down the field we were treated to visits from Mark Dominik, Brian Ford, Gerald McCoy and LeGarrette Blount. Without exception, every one of them was thoroughly decent and they took the time to chat to all of us and spent a lot of time signing anything that was put in front of them,
After watching the Bucs march up and down the field a few times, the practice was soon over and we all walked back down the hill and accosted the players for autographs as they left the field. Most players were only too happy to sign anything and everything put in front of them, even having the patience to put up with my ham fisted attempts at identifying them (done by asking them to turn round so that I could read the names on their backs) and then finding the right page in my media guide. I was very impressed at how accommodating the players I managed to accost were.
After the players had finished signing everything asked of them, they retired to get ready for their transfer to London and we left ready for the week’s next instalment.
I do have to say that the experience was thoroughly enjoyable and my only two regrets were the fact that I didn’t get to get my photos of Raheem signed and I didn’t get to pick the Bucs official photographer’s brain about the trials and tribulations of photographing the Bucs day in and day out…
Part two of the weekend odyssey kicked off the following day when we arrived at Trafalgar Square for the fan rally. Unfortunately my wife and I arrived after the VIP passes had been given out so I missed out on another chance to meet Rah, but a couple of beers with some like minded Bucs fans, face painting and a fake tattoo still made for a fantastic afternoon.
A quick trip back to the hotel to grab some shirts and paperwork for the evening and then it was back to Trafalgar Square for the evening’s frivolity…
As with the meal last time the Bucs played, the pre-game meal took place at the Texas Embassy Cantina where over 50 members of the Bucs UK, guests and assorted hangers on sat down for a Tex-Mex meal.
During the meal I got the privilege of sitting next to Jeff Ellis and Steven Miranda from LA. These two gentleman do a twice weekly NFL Podcast called NFL Rants and Raves (www.nflrandr.com) as well as producing a daily 5 minute NFL video podcast, available on You Tube under the title 5 Minute Football Fix.
Having been an avid listener to their Rants and Raves podcast for a few years now and having conversed with them many times via email, it was good to actually meet them in person and spend a couple of hours talking to them about various subjects ranging from the NFL and Steven’s legendary memory for useless statistics to another shared interest, shooting in its various forms. Unfortunately they had to head off all too soon for their own party, a party that I suspect several club members also attended from the look of them the next day.
The rest of the evening went relatively smoothly, aided by the consumption of beer laced with Tequila, a particular favourite of mine that I was happy to find out they served at the Cantina. Fortunately I didn’t drink too much this time as when it came time to pay, the Embassy had miscalculated the bill and on first inspection it looked like I could be around £300 out of pocket until I noticed that they had added the service charge twice!
Carrie, Dave Hogg, Graeme Reid and I then retired downstairs to the bar for a few more beers before heading back to the hotel…
Sunday morning I awoke with mixed feelings… On the one hand I was excited about the prospect of seeing my beloved Bucs break my duck by beating “Da Bears”, while on the other I was disappointed that I would not be able to take my camera to the game. I spent a long time sitting in the hotel room desperately trying to think of a way around my dilemma and wondering if taking the camera to the stadium was a risk worth taking or not.
In the end I decided that the prospect of losing my camera wasn’t worth the risk so I packed my gear away and off we went. Unfortunately this delay meant that by the time we got to the stadium, we had missed the flag football game and an opportunity to meet some more Buccaneer greats!
We arrived at the stadium just as everyone was leaving the pitch and so we went straight into the tailgate party. For the next few hours we people watched the crowd, ate some fantastic food and drunk some half decent beer. I thought the Bucs/Bears display was really good but as with previous years, the queues for the various other displays and activities meant that we didn’t see a lot of the entertainment on offer.
It was during the tailgate party that one of the most bizarre events of the weekend took place too… Carrie spotted Captain Fear rushing through the crowd being followed by someone struggling with a rather large kit bag. At one point the bag was dropped and it was obvious that the bloke carrying it was really struggling with the weight, so Carrie suggested I give him a hand (you never know, she said, there may be a T-shirt or something in it for you…)
I duly offered my support, which was gratefully accepted and I helped carry the kit bag right into the stadium itself. After a quick chat with Captain Fear about his drinking exploits with Steve and Jeff, we parted ways and Carrie and I made our way back to the tailgate with… a roll of Staley Bear stickers!!! Odd given that we were both dressed from head to foot in Bucs gear.
Once back inside the party, Carrie spent the next half hour or so sticking Staley Bear stickers on random Bears fans. For some reason the Packers fans that we ran into didn’t want these stickers..?
After we got rid of the last sticker, we made our way into the stadium to take up our seats.
When we arrived at our seats we realised how good they were. We were seated right at the front, immediately behind the tarped off section with a great view of the endzone (level with the touchline). Again I pined after my camera but it was too late to do anything about it now…
I won’t go into the game in too much detail here as many more eminent writers than myself have already written about it and dissected the Bucs performance many, many times. Suffice to say that the Bucs didn’t manage to break my duck and I’m now 0-3 watching the Bucs in the flesh and 3-0 watching Da Bears… Something I’m not over enamoured about and I guess this means that I’ll have to get my sorry arse over the Raymond James Stadium and watch them win!
Unfortunately I do think that the Bucs still suffer from the same afflictions that they did two years ago when they last visited, stupid, stupid penalties, and inability to tackle for toffee and receivers who would struggle to catch a cold! Hopefully the new practice regime will address two of these three problems and an improved work ethic from the receivers will address the other…
At least this year the game wasn’t over until the last gasps and the Bucs had the opportunity to steal the win right up to Josh’s final interception killed any last lingering hopes of another miracle comeback.
In some respects, the game was similar to the first time I saw the Bucs in 1991, also against the Bears. On that occasion the game wasn’t even close and a stellar performance by Vinny Testaverde meant the Bucs were soundly beaten by the end of the third quarter. What was similar was the fact that once again I found myself surrounded by very vocal Bears fans! Still, also being in the Bucs UK section, surrounded by friends, both old and new, made for another truly memorable weekend.
So there you have it, a weekend filled with dizzying highs and terrifying lows… OK, not that many lows… and something I hope to repeat again soon.