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printer version

Victory in a championship T-shirt

In a joyful rush, printers crank out thousands of shirts overnight on Sunday.

By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 21, 2003
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TAMPA -- As the Bucs' Ronde Barber intercepted an Eagles pass and ran 92 yards for a touchdown Sunday afternoon, four middle-aged men in a Tampa factory rose as one, their arms in the air.

"Oh! All the way! All the way!" shouted one of them, Guy Pugliese. He grabbed a walkie talkie from his belt and bellowed into it.

"Start printing! Start printing! Roll! Roll!"

Only minutes before, Pugliese, the screenprint operations director at VF Imagewear, had been explaining that it's not prudent business practice to start the presses, printing out thousands of NFC championship T-shirts and sweatshirts, until a game is officially over. Too risky.

Though the Tampa Bay Bucs were leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter, anything could happen, Pugliese had said. Then it did, with Barber's touchdown, and hometown sentiment trumped business pragmatism.

Workers ran for the presses, insulated lunch bags banging their hips as they went. Hoots and hollers could be heard above the hissing machines.

VF routinely silkscreens shirts after events and championship games of all sorts for distribution nationally, but this one was different for many of the 140 employees. They weren't only workers. Many of them were fans.

As the game's final minutes ticked down, Cherry Russell stood still, her lips quivering. She was overwhelmed by the moment. She put her hands to her face and sobbed.

"I've been a fan for a really long time," said Russell, 54, who was born and raised in Tampa. "They said we couldn't do it. Now, it's a sure thing. I can't wait to get home and watch the tape. Even if it's 5 o'clock in the morning. I'm going to watch the whole tape."

Russell, whose job is to make sure blank T-shirts get to the presses, high-fived a sales rep and did a little dance as her shiny red, black and silver beads swung around. She would be on her feet for 14 hours before she went home to watch the tape of her beloved Bucs.

The entire team at VF was in for an exhausting, exhilarating all-nighter.

The game began with the Eagles dominating, for at least a few minutes, and it looked like the T-shirt design with the Eagles on it would be going to the presses. It ended Monday morning as rabid Bucs fans waited for stores to open so they could run to the racks and buy NFC championship T-shirts.

* * *

Two pallets? Just two?

It was shortly after 5 a.m. on Monday, and truck driver Bob Johnston was obviously ticked off. He relayed the situation to someone at the other end of his cell phone as plumes of steam came from his mouth in the 40-degree morning.

Johnston was on the loading dock at the VF plant on Linebaugh Avenue, picking up Bucs NFC championship T-shirts for central Florida Sam's Club stores.

Trouble was that only half the order was ready. Given the volume they were trying to get out, plant employees first had packed the part of Johnston's order that was going to stores farther away, like Lakeland. He'd have to come back in a few hours for the shirts going to nearby stores, and he wasn't happy about it.

Ralph Galera, VF's director of special events, sighed. He knew it would be like this. Everybody wants their order filled immediately, and the plant's employees had engaged in a Herculean effort to fill as many as possible. The euphoria of the night before had yielded to exhaustion.

"A lot of us are cranky tired," said Galera. "We really haven't eaten."

In less than 12 hours, the plant produced more than 140,000 sweatshirts, long- and short-sleeve T-shirts and children's T-shirts, in red or white. Depending on how things go, it can turn out between 12,000 and 15,000 shirts an hour on its two dozen silkscreen presses.

"We had a pretty good night," said Tim Moseley, a shift manager who was running from job to job. "In fact, a real good night."

Mountains of brown boxes sat in the warehouse destined for Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target, Sears and JCPenney stores throughout central Florida. In the hours to come, trucks would come and go, one after the other, taking Bucs NFC championship shirts to retail outlets.

VF Imagewear, based in Tampa, is a division of VF Corp., a giant in the world of apparel manufacturers. Steve Eaves, manager of licensed brands and special events for the Imagewear division, said it does several hundred million dollars of business a year.

VF is one of a handful of companies authorized by the NFL to make official apparel. This year, producing NFC and AFC championship apparel poses particular problems.

There is only one week instead of two between those games and the Super Bowl. Demand for these items tends to be high right after the game, then quickly diminishes.

By midweek, VF's Tampa plant will have produced 250,000 to 300,000 pieces of apparel, if all goes well. The managers planned to run the plant around the clock for at least a few days, depending on subsequent orders. The extra work was good news for employees, who make $10-11 an hour including bonuses. Eaves said each of them also would get a souvenir T-shirt.

Company officials declined to say how much blank T-shirts, which are made by their corporate parent, cost. But they said a short sleeve printed T-shirt wholesales for about $8 and retails for $16-20.

At the same time the Tampa plant was cranking, VF was running a similar operation in Oakland, Calif., producing 120,000 to 130,000 pieces of conference championship apparel for Raiders' fans, Eaves said.

And by next Sunday, it will be all about printing shirts to salute the Super Bowl winner.

Back at the Tampa loading dock on Monday morning, Jeff Kingsbury, a men's department manager at the JC Penney store at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, arrived before dawn.

He picked up 10 boxes of Bucs NFC championship T-shirts so the store would be ready for its 10 a.m. opening.

"This probably won't be enough," he said as loaded boxes into his SUV. "These are going to sell."

Kingsbury's JC Penney store was not scheduled to open for another half hour, but dozens of fans had arrived, many in cars decorated with Bucs flags and magnets.

They were giddy. Some were wiped out, having stayed up to watch the Bucs' return on television. All were determined to get a T-shirt and had the steely-eyed determination of a defensive tackle on the hunt for a quarterback.

Mike Kohler, 40, a plumber, was there to buy a shirt for his wife. It's her birthday today, and she is a huge Bucs fan.

Vanessa Phillips, 48, works in the accounting department at Raymond James Financial. She was there to get shirts for a few family members.

"I figured everybody and their mother would be out here," she said explaining why she was lining up outside the department store.

Mary Wilfalk, 52, of St. Petersburg, claimed a spot near the door. She works for a transportation company and has been a rabid fan since the days when Vinny Testaverde was quarterback.

The door opened and she ran, asking store employees along the way for directions to the Bucs T-shirt display. She was followed by a small herd that grew larger as crowds from each of the entrances converged in the menswear department.

It was something of a feeding frenzy as customers, many already wearing Bucs gear, grabbed T-shirts, all of which were made at VF. A few grumbled about the $20 price tag for a short sleeve shirt, or voiced disappointment that the store carried only white shirts. The complaints, though, were half-hearted.

Within 15 minutes, the racks and tables were virtually empty.

Mary Wilfalk was among the triumphant. She held a shirt aloft and smiled.

"I'll be wearing this to work tomorrow," she said. "All right! Go Bucs!"

-Alicia Caldwell can be reached at or (727) 893-8145.

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