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Veterans conquer the past

Six seasons after being called the "Yucks," these Bucs complete

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- It began on a quiet Saturday afternoon -- Nov. 16, 1996 -- in San Diego. That's when the Bucs were called the "Yucks" by an ESPN commentator on national television.

For defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, that was too much. Too much of an insult. Too much of an embarrassment.

Six seasons later, after waxing the Eagles 27-10 Sunday, the Yucks are NFC champions. The quest, for a locker room full of grizzled veterans, sends the Bucs back in San Diego with a chance to win the Super Bowl.

"It's fitting," Brooks said. "We stepped up at that point and made a bond that we were going to do whatever we can to turn this franchise around, and now we're going back there to put this franchise on top of the world.

"From a standpoint of respect for the franchise, it's special. We recognize as a team that it's bigger than us. The state of Florida hasn't won a (Super Bowl) since the (1973) Dolphins, and that's what we're taking to San Diego, the chance to come back and bring it to Florida."

The list of those who believe they are deserving is endless. Brooks and Sapp, in their eighth season. Safety John Lynch and center Jeff Christy, 10 years. Receiver Keenan McCardell and quarterback Brad Johnson, 11 years. Left tackle Lomas Brown, 18 years. They all basked in glory.

"I've been on the other side of the locker room and I know that feeling and it's a hollow feeling," said McCardell, who played with the Jaguars when they lost to the Patriots in the 1996 AFC Championship Game. "It's worse because you never know if you're going to get back. In those final minutes, the clock was in slow motion, the time couldn't run off any slower.

"I was sitting there trying to be the veteran leader and tell the guys to be patient, to be aware that there were still three minutes left in the game. I tried to be calm. But it was hard. We're going to the Super Bowl."

Those are intriguing words for a franchise many called the laughingstock of professional sports for so many years. Players looked back on the losing seasons and national jokes, and that made the victory sweeter.

"That's what I love about this game," Lynch said. "You look back and you wish you could have started your career this way. This makes it special. The great thing about this game is that it challenges you in so many ways. You learn things about yourself. You learn things about being a leader, about your teammates. You forge relationships and bonds."

Lynch said he felt the current team should share the joy of Sunday's win with former players and coaches who helped orchestrate the turnaround.

"The thought going through my head is about the number of guys not in the locker room," Lynch said. "I don't want to discount some of the people in this room, but I find myself thinking about the Hardy Nickersons, Martin Mayhews, Rufus Porters and Brad Culpeppers. The guys who put so much into turning this franchise around. It's interesting the evolution we went through, from being a laughingstock to being a playoff franchise to being a perennial playoff team to being the NFC champions."

History will recall the Bucs arrival as NFC champions around 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, but to some of those veterans, the accomplishment needed to marinate.

"It'll hit us when we get ready to make that turn and go into Raymond James Stadium and there are about 150,000 people waiting for us there," Sapp said. "It's no feeling like that, to be able to come on the road and beat an opponent like this."

Johnson said the NFC championship had its place in Bucs history but could could be outdone.

"Ultimately, you're judged by what you do in the playoffs," said Johnson, who was 20-for-33 for 259 yards and one touchdown. "That's the way it is. We need to win one more game. One more game and it will (mean more)."

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