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© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2003
SAN DIEGO -- Odds are, the world does not share his vision.
Odds are, the world will not cheer his name.
Odds are, Aaron Stecker is a lot like Han Solo. He doesn't want you to tell him the odds.
Stecker just wants to go on one magical, memorable trip. The way he figures it, the stage is finally set. This is the unreachable game, after all? Why not begin it with the unachievable feat.
Stecker says he is going to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
The odds do not get more preposterous than this. The Bucs have never played in a Super Bowl, and they have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Who would ever imagine them happening on the same day?
"When you're a kick returner, you have to believe," Stecker said, grinning. "You have to say, 'This is the one. This is the game."'
But this game? On a return by this team?
Why not? The Bucs have slayed every other dragon this season. They have won more games in the regular season and advanced further in the playoffs. They have won in the cold and on the road. They have won with a first-year coach and the worst rushing game in Super Bowl history.
In some strange way, doesn't it fit that the Bucs clear their final hurdle?
"Everything happens for a reason," Stecker said. "Maybe the stage wasn't big enough for it to happen before. Maybe this is the time."
What are the odds? How about 27 years-to-none? How about 404 games-to-zip? Or 118 returners-to-nil? Or 1,590 returns-to-zero?
Stecker can visualize it, he says. He gets this faraway look in his eyes, like the psychics in Minority Report, and he takes you on the trip with him.
"It's the opening kickoff," he said. "(Sebastian) Janikowski hits the ball pretty good, and all the flashbulbs go off. I really have to concentrate on the ball because some of the flash gets in my eyes.
"I take the ball at the goal line, in the middle of the field. I run to about the 20, and I cut to the left. About the 40, someone hits me around the legs. I don't know the number. He's a blur.
"I break that tackle, and it's clear sailing down the sideline. I'm getting excited, and I'm thinking, 'This is it.' I don't slow down. Then I'm in the end zone, and it's wonderful. I'm hyperventilating. I may not be able to play for the rest of the game."
As Stecker tells the story, he speaks faster and faster, the words flashing by like yard stripes. Then he finishes, and he grins. Can't you see it?
Okay, let's be real. Carrot Top has better odds of becoming Miss Universe. Knock the cup off your desk, and the coffee has a better chance of spilling up. The Bucs and a kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl? That's like predicting a spaceship will land on the White House lawn, and when the alien walks outside, he will be eaten by the Loch Ness monster.
It's amazing, really. As bad as the Bucs were for all those years, as many times as opposing teams kicked off after scores, as many big leads as they had to make the coverage team relax, this franchise has had as many kickoff returns for touchdowns as, well, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stecker thinks that's going to end Sunday. The way I figure it, the odds should be, oh, a kajillion-to-one. Bet a nickel, and if it happens, you could win France.
Armed with information such as this, you might want to race to the betting window. Don't bother. You can't make a bet on the Bucs returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
This is the Super Bowl. You're supposed to be able to bet on anything. For instance, you can bet on which team will win each quarter. You can bet on which player will score the first touchdown. You can bet whether Yao Ming's total points and rebounds will be more than the Bucs' total score.
You can bet on whether Rich Gannon will have a pass of more than 41 yards and whether Keyshawn Johnson will catch more than five passes and whether either team will score a safety. You can bet on replay challenges and timeouts and penalty yards. If you look hard enough, you could probably bet on how many times the referees will huddle in a panic, how many receivers Bill Romanowski will spit on and whether Jon Gruden's rock is harder than Al Davis' hair.
But you can't bet on this. Not unless you want to water it down with "will there be a special teams or defensive touchdown." Which, of course, isn't quite as fun as betting against "never."
Who knows? Maybe the bookies have visions, too.
It is one of the NFL's most enduring, and mystifying, records. Consider this: The Dolphins returned the first kickoff of their history for a touchdown. The Bucs have now returned 1,590, and they haven't completed the journey.
Last season, Stecker almost did it. He returned the Saints' opening kickoff 86 yards before being tackled. He didn't score.
"We've been close a lot of times," Stecker said. "This year, there were five or six times where, if we had gotten one more man, if I had done something a little different, we would have scored."
Could it happen Sunday?
Odds are, no.
"It would be like the odds of Pat Paulsen really winning the '72 presidential election," general manager Rich McKay said.
Sometimes, though, the odds are beaten. Hey, the Bucs are in the Super Bowl, aren't they? All things are possible.
So go ahead, play a hunch. The Bucs are going to win this game as 31/2-point underdogs. Brad Johnson is going to be MVP at 41/2-1. Ming will outscore the Bucs but only because he doesn't play their defense. The Bucs will call the first timeout. The Raiders will challenge the first call, and Mike Alstott will score the first touchdown.
Then again, I've been wrong before.
After all, my vision isn't as clear as Stecker's.
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