© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2003
You've tuned to the conquering of Philadelphia, heard horns screaming in your neighborhood, seen Tampa Bay skies charged by fireworks and experienced an unprecedented gushing of community pride that gloriously spilled along Florida's left coast from the Keys to Cedar Key.
Envy us, Miami and Jacksonville.
Professional sports franchises can be a civic overload. Their demands can become nauseating. Arenas are too expensive. Tickets cost too much. Citizens are the true investors, repeatedly being asked to ante. Awaiting positive returns from your teams can be a long, exasperating, even embarrassing, journey.
For a generation, nothing more epitomized the shortfall than the annual agonies of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. America laughed, then turned up its nose when infant Bucs lost their first 26 games. In 1979, there was brief respite, with a shocking advance to the NFC Championship Game, where a forever-unachieving offense scored zero against the Los Angeles Rams.
Instead of a catapult, '79 would be a trap door. Johnny Carson repeatedly joked about Bucs ineptitudes. Tampa Bay's team was laughingly belittled from Green Bay to New York to Dallas to San Francisco.
Hurt was cavernous in the Tampa Bay area. It was an image that spread far beyond jock world. It didn't help business in a swatch of Florida desperate to walk more in step with America's power communities. Outsiders often were unsure if Tampa Bay was on Florida's east coast or near the gulf. We had a major identity crisis.
Now this, going to Super Bowl XXXVII.
Hope festered in the '90s, with transition from the Culverhouse ownership's deceit and debacles to the controversial Glazers, who, any critic must agree, went after better coaches and players and accelerated success. After heavy scrimmages among taxpayers, a flashy new ballpark arose. But snowballing into a champion wasn't easy in our part of the tropics.
Jon Gruden, rookie engineer of the Bucs train, has generously credited Tony Dungy for a stout foundation of talent, character and attitude. Nobody should ever dilute the former coach's marvelous work. But never did the Dungy Bucs get to the NFL's top floor, to grapple before a billion eyes for occupancy of a penthouse where the optimum decoration is a Lombardi Trophy.
Good for Johnson, Brooks, Lynch, Alstott, Barber, Sapp and a second Johnson. But the strongest shivers of delight run through the less-athletic frames of hundreds of thousands in hundreds of Suncoast ZIP codes. Among the people. Among the dreamers who wondered what it would be like if the Bucs ever made the Super Bowl. Among those who cared, with cheers and probably some boos along the way, leading to Tampa Bay's own kind of demolition of crummy Veterans Stadium in Philly.
Across the handsome expanse of the Tampa Bay community, this time easily and happily dancing across the bridges that too often emotionally divide us, there is a heroic outbreak of good feelings like our neighborhood has never felt. Super Bowls are so publicized, dominating radio and television networks as well as newspapers and magazines from 50 states and well beyond, and this time the exaggerated buildup coming from San Diego will be so different from the past stories about 49ers, Giants, Cowboys, Rams, Ravens or Patriots.
This is your time. Hug it. Ride it for every stride of joy and pride. A slapping sound could be heard from here to the Liberty Bell, as Tampa Bay celebrated with millions of high fives. It's the talk of offices, schools, clubs, churches and just about every street.
You are calling friends and family from afar, saying "How about my Bucs! How about us!" This is why, we must assume, cities and states spend so much to create and support major-league franchises. Awaiting this reward. Is it worth it? That is for each of us to decide.
By next Monday, the Tampa Bay area and its NFL team and its populace will be far better known, better understood and more dramatically featured than anything we have ever experienced. Take notice, you laboring Lightning and struggling D-Rays, franchises of ours that should be expected to do their parts someday in brightening the Tampa Bay star.
But it will never again be like this. There's nothing like the first time. We've had no Yankees or Bears or Redskins or Red Wings to supply a long-running flood of attention, visibility and pride. It took Atlanta a long time to gain such stature, until the Braves made the World Series. Look what a towering football image has done for Green Bay. We needed this. For image, for visibility, for business and for pride.
-- Hubert Mizell is a retired Times sports columnist.