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Believe it

Bucs head to the Super Bowl after a 27-10 win over nemesis Philadelphia.

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- Remember the way he ran, faster and faster. Remember the way the old joint sounded, quieter and quieter.

Ronde Barber was gliding down the turf now, running away from the Eagles, from history, from trouble. He was running toward the end zone, toward absolution, toward the Super Bowl.

Remember it, because at the time, all of Tampa Bay was running alongside.

It was over. Barber flew down the field, and it was as if a bad moment peeled away and died with every stride he made. He ran, carrying the fortunes of the NFL's former sad sacks with him, and all was forgiven.

Barber ran, and even the rowdy fans in the rusty stadium knew it was the final stake to the heart in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. The play had begun in a roar, the fans cheering an Eagles team showing its last twitch of life. And then Barber had the ball, and he was gone, and by the time he had reached midfield, someone had turned the volume off. There was no noise, no breath, no hope.

The final yards of the journey bordered on the surreal, and as he ran, even Barber noticed the deathly quiet. If he had listened, however, he might have heard one voice in the distance, the voice of a man losing it a little.

"Run!" general manager Rich McKay screamed in the press box, his fist pounding the table. "Don't stop running! Don't ever stop running!"

In memory, he never will.

How could you forget this play, or this team, or this day? Finally, this was the team that had the fight, the fortitude to get past an Eagles team that had owned them. Finally, this was the team that had the grit, the gumption to ignore the weather and the crowd and the history and the talk and the odds and the bad breaks and its own shortcomings to go into the back yard of an opponent and take its valuables.

Finally, this was a team that measured up to Tampa Bay's dreams.

This was like going to the Ponderosa and slapping the Cartwrights around, or worse, going to the Netherworld and taking the devil's timepiece. This was a team with the right attitude and the right plan and the right pieces to pull off what those other Bucs teams could not.

Finally, this is a team everyone in Tampa Bay can love. Fans will look for pieces of themselves in the qualities of this team: in the way Joe Jurevicius warmed their heart, the way Warren Sapp spilled his blood, the way Jon Gruden finally got his team focused on the competition instead of the details around it.

There was a little of all of Tampa Bay in that, right? Sunday night, fans could ride on Brad Johnson's arm and Keyshawn Johnson's hands and the glint in John Lynch's eye. Today, all of us are a little ferocious, like Derrick Brooks, and a little determined, like Simeon Rice, and a little underappreciated, like Shelton Quarles. Today, all of us can talk about the Super Bowl.

There was a moment, when the outcome of the game was obvious, when the Gatorade was dripping from Gruden's hair, that Lynch and Sapp approached each other. They embraced for a long time, and they, too, remembered all the bumps and potholes this franchise has encountered along the way.

"There's such a bond there," said Sapp, a cut over his right eye making him look like a boxer. "We were remembering all the players who had been here. I was here when they called us Yuckaneers. Now we're going to the Super Bowl."

Said Lynch: "It hasn't been that long, really. I remember wearing orange. I remember what it was like."

The truth of it is that it has been a long time, since the Glazers purchased the team and infused it with money, since the Bucs were bad. But in Tampa Bay, there was such a substructure of insecurity, some fans seemed to act as if the bad days were chasing them still.

For the last two seasons, in particular, there has been a feeling of dissatisfaction at being pretty good that almost eclipsed the disappointment of being so horrible. It was as if something was missing, that substance that kept a team from being great.

No one will feel that again. This makes up for all of it. As of today, all sins are pardoned, all mistakes are forgiven. There is a fresh canvas now.

This makes up for the disappointment of the last two playoff loses. It makes up for the heavy price paid for Gruden, for the bruised feelings of the Tony Dungy firing, for the bitterness of the Bill Parcells defection. It makes up for Bucco Bruce, for creamsickle pants, for 0-26. It makes up for blown draft picks and lousy trades and terrible decisions.

"We used to hate Sundays," McKay said. "But it's over. Ding dong, the witch is dead. Don't bring up that stuff about how we can't win in the cold, or how we can't win a playoff game on the road, or how we can't beat Philadelphia. Let's make it about the game."

Here's the thing to remember about this game: It had every element of the past few Bucs disappointments. There was the lousy start, falling behind 7-0 after the third play of the game. There was the lousy field position, with the Eagles playing on a 60-yard field. There was the lousy cold and the lousy wind and the lousy turf.

And none of it mattered. Donovan McNabb didn't matter. The secondary full of Pro Bowlers didn't matter. The rowdy fans didn't matter. The inability to run didn't matter. The old tag of paper champions, hung on the team by the Steelers' Lee Flowers, didn't matter.

"Did Lee Flowers bet his house?" Sapp yelled in the dressing room. He laughed. Probably, you laughed along.

That kind of resiliency is what this team had that its predecessors lacked. That, and Gruden. When you think about it, they're pretty much the same thing. He has given this team resiliency, energy, focus. Anyone want to complain about his price tag now?

It was odd. According to Vegas, the Eagles weren't that huge of a favorite. Only 31/2 points. But on the street, in the sports bars and, yes, in the press room, it was impossible to find anyone who did not think the Eagles were going to win again. The Bucs were supposed to feel that dull, familiar pain once more.

Instead, they won the biggest game in their careers on Sunday. They were a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit tougher than anyone suspected. Today, everyone is a genius. Everyone is a winner. Everyone is a warrior.

That goes for the Bucs and, of course, the rest of Tampa Bay.

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