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Today it's okay to root, root for the home team

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 19, 2003

Media homers are predominantly offensive ... but having seen -- even shared -- pains of tormented generations of Bucs fans, from followers of 0-26 originals in 1976-77, to ticket-buying victims from the exasperating '80s, on into the excruciating early '90s, is it okay if an old sports writer -- just for today -- puts a gentle muffler on objectivity and pulls for Super Bowl deliverance from so many who overpaid dues?

Philadelphia, where Tampa Bay emissaries historically flub, offers one more cold, inhospitable, severe January examination at Veterans Stadium, the lousiest of football arenas. Oh, they're quite deserving, those gritty Eagles who excelled with revolving quarterbacks, but might this finally be the Bucs' time?

I want it most of all for a Tampa Bay community long desperate to experience the ultimate in major-sports exuberance and pride, and also for a lot of bygone players and coaches -- many of whom I have had to splash with angry ink -- but guys who did a lot of good stuff during far too many bad seasons.

Do it today for Lee Roy Selmon, the most achieving of Buccaneers, a Hall of Fame defensive end and a Hall of Fame human being, and never forget his eloquent, linebacking brother Dewey who served with those 0-26ers alongside a QB named Steve Spurrier, defensive memorables Mark Cotney and Richard "Batman" Wood and a sweetheart of a tailback, Ricky Bell.

Do it now for Tampa Bay athletes who did the unexpected in 1979, making an NFC Championship Game, armed with quarterback Doug Williams, the relentless Selmons and another linebacker with smack, David Lewis.

So many of them will be watching Bucs-Eagles '03, their tummies a bit softer and heads grayer or balder. Imagine the range of emotions if today's sons of Dale Mabry step ahead, at last, to the biggest show in American sports.

With a frigid blast of enthusiasm for another hot chance in Philly, we can so easily mentally compress all the rotten bygone records. But the talented people of Jon Gruden, along with contemporary goals, can leap to a place that was barely a fantasy through 1983-94 bumblings as bad Bucs strung out the NFL's all-time Disgusting Dozen seasons with consecutive defeat totals of 14-10-14-14-11-11-11-10-13-11-11-10.

Do it, you pewter babes, in memory of a durable and battered runner named James Wilder, feisty old linebacker Cecil Johnson, the moody Hugh Green, the gifted Jimmie Giles, tough defender-turned-broadcaster named Scot Brantley, cerebral if small nose tackle Brad Culpepper and somewhat steady O-Line chaps Paul Gruber, Sean Farrell, Tony Mayberry, Charley Hannah and Steve Wilson.

Surely a celebration of Tampa Bay reaching the Super Bowl will trigger happy latter-day tingles in some quarterbacks who took nasty Bucs beatings, physical and verbal, among them Vinny Testaverde, Steve DeBerg, Trent Dilfer and Steve Young.

If it happens today, I'll feel good for the McKays, the late John who came from Southern California greatness to roll with 1976-84 punches as the first Bucs coach, and son Rich who evolved from an overzealous teenager around One Buccaneer Place to skilled Princeton/Stetson lawyer to efficient general manager, going through it all for 27 seasons.

I've surely overlooked some who merit mention. Oh, yeah, like that fellow Tony Dungy, who brought class, discipline, humanity, focus and accomplishment in six turnaround seasons for a franchise that had been so predominantly awful, at times as laughable as ghastly orange uniforms players wore. Dungy didn't get Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl, although he came close, but he left a deep and hopeful legacy on which Gruden has built.

Who isn't thinking, with real honesty and all those 1976-2001 bruises, that this might not be a third Bucs flunk of an NFC Championship Game, against an admirable Eagles group and NFL coach of the year (Andy Reid), in a Broad Street joint that should've been imploded long ago, on a field too hard, skimpy and slippery to be fair?

Then again, perhaps this will be the blessed Bucs time. Time to sweep an overload of feeble seasons under a faded Vet carpet. Time to play to Bucs lofty postseason potential, even getting a hefty break or two, allowing long-restrained eruptions among Tampa Bay multitudes.

Is it okay if I root for that?

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net ">mmizell02@earthlink.net or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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