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Been there, done that, want more

Four Bucs have experienced the rigors of Super Bowl week.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2003

TAMPA -- Receiver Keenan McCardell got there as a rookie and hasn't been back. It took left tackle Lomas Brown 16 seasons to realize the dream, and now he returns for an encore appearance two years later.

Punter Tom Tupa remembers when players on Super Bowl teams got 30 tickets to distribute to family and friends.

The Super Bowl means moments in a player's career that never are forgotten. It means stories that bear repetition and memories shared with close family and an entire nation.

Monday, as the Bucs landed in San Diego to begin what likely is the busiest week of any player's career, Brown, McCardell and Tupa reflected on what they remember of their Super Bowl experience and what advice they had for teammates who can't imagine what's ahead.

"This is how I describe it: It's surreal," Brown said. "It's like a play. Like everything is happening on a stage with all these props around you and all these people in the audience. A real stage, a real play. You look over here and there's Ray Charles and then over there's one of the highest-ranking generals and then there's Mariah Carey and the Backstreet Boys. It's like a giant award show."

And it comes with the chaos of the annual Hollywood productions. This week the Bucs will be horded into buses and transported around the city from event to event. They will conduct hundreds of interviews, pose for scores of photos and handle relentless family requests.

They will be allowed to enjoy the splendors of San Diego while keeping in mind that most will play the biggest game of their careers Sunday.

"The masses of media stunned me," McCardell said of his first trip to the Super Bowl, with the Redskins in 1992. "Remember, I was a rookie, and although there had been a lot of media in D.C. I had never seen anything like that. Everywhere, from this little station, to this big station, from this country to that country. It's unbelievable. It's something that amazed me. You know what, that's when I realized how big the NFL was. It made me realize how blessed I was."

After 11 seasons with Detroit, three with Arizona and one with Cleveland, Brown anchored the Giants offensive line all the way to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. Along with receiver Joe Jurevicius, another Buc who has played in the Super Bowl, Brown said he did his best to soak in every ounce of the experience, but it came at a price.

"The thing that was hard for me was that I was coming back to my home state, and I had tons of people who wanted something," said Brown, a former Florida Gator from Miami. "I heard from people I hadn't heard from in 20 years. ... You have to know who to take care of and have a plan already in your mind. You can't please everybody.

"That makes it nerve-racking. This is the biggest moment of your professional life, so it has to be nerve-racking because you want to play well in front of the nation. You know if you play well, you've achieved the ultimate."

Brown and Tupa pointed out that when they played in the Super Bowl there were two weeks between the championship games and the Super Bowl. That offered some semblance of order.

"We had almost two weeks leading up to it," Tupa said. "That extra week at home made a difference. We had a week of practice, and that brings you down to earth."

Said Brown: "After we won the championship game, we got the next two days off for celebration and then immediately went back to work. We made it as regular a work week as we could. You have to do that."

In 1991, McCardell spent his rookie season on the Redskins' injured reserve list. Washington won the Super Bowl, knocking off Buffalo 37-24, and McCardell earned a Super Bowl ring. He keeps it in his Houston home.

But this time, as a critical member of the team, McCardell said playing in the game will be significantly different.

"No doubt, when you strap it on and walk out of the tunnel with your gear on ... it's different," he said. "It'll validate everything. Everything."

Then a punter with the Patriots, Tupa was in his ninth season before making it to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Patriots lost 35-21 to the Packers.

"What stands out for me is the taking care of family," Tupa said. "Actually, it was no big deal for me because we got 30 tickets. Back then they gave each player enough so that you could take care of friends and family and have lots extra. Of course, it's not like that anymore. All the tickets go to the corporate sponsors."

McCardell said handling ticket and family requests can be particularly challenging for young or single players.

"You got to worry about tickets, hotel rooms, transportation, seeing them on a consistent basis without hurting anyone's feelings," he said. "I can defer the logistics of that to my wife now, thank God. But back then I was single. I had to make sure my mom, my grandmother and grandfather were taken care off." Being through it before doesn't trivialize this week, but it gives those with experience a chance to pass a few tips to their comrades.

"There's a lot of energy, a lot of buzz," McCardell said. "The thing is to try to keep it as close to a regular week as you can. Whatever you do in the regular week, you have to mirror it in the Super Bowl week. Practice the same times, work out the same way, have dinner at the same time, stay routine.

"There's nothing wrong with going to parties, because there are a lot of guys who party hard during the regular season anyway. But you realize you can't be staying out till the wee hours of the morning. You have to have some kind of control." Brown said that's when coaches can have an impact on distractions.

"Coaches are creatures of habit, and they want to keep everything like it is during the regular season, within reason of course," Brown said. "The thing to keep in mind is that we still have a game to play. That's the thing I think a lot of people lose track of. I was guilty of it myself. You get to the Super Bowl and you think you've reached the pinnacle getting there.

"But as I found out for myself, losing is one of the most hurtful things you'll feel in your life. I got to tell them, if you get there you want to win. The extreme joy of getting there is matched only by the extreme pain of losing it."

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