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Tampa Bay fans

Long-denied shout their pride

To Bucs fans in San Diego, this is about much more than just a game to determine the NFL championship - it's about respect.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- They have suffered through the many horrible seasons, the 0-26 streak and the ridicule that goes along with having one of the worst football franchises in the National Football League.

Just last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went through the Tony Dungy-Bill Parcells-Marvin Lewis-Steve Mariucci-Jon Gruden fiasco that put them in a negative national spotlight yet again.

But today, the Buccaneers are in the Super Bowl and it has been a long time coming.

So don't you dare tell the thousands of Buccaneers fans who have descended upon this city that today's contest between the Bucs and the Oakland Raiders is just a game.

Ooohhh, no. It's about a heck of a lot more than that.

"To me, it's all about respect," said Tony Ronan, who walked the streets of downtown wearing his old orange and white Bucs jersey. "I'm obviously thrilled that we're here, but it's the respect that's most important. We've been the laughingstock of the NFL for so long and this finally gives us some respect. It gives us a spot in the (national) media, a lot of the world is looking in. We've been ridiculed for years and now we're proud to be Bucs and to be here."

Ken Key is a season-ticket holder who moved from Illinois in 1976 and jumped on the Bucs bandwagon immediately.

"We used to go to the Old Sombrero back when we were the Yuccaneers. We would be on the 50-yard line and sit way up high because there was no one around us," he said. "This is amazing. To have an opportunity to finally win a Super Bowl and make Tampa Bay not be the laughingstock of the NFL, it makes you proud to be from the city and from the area."

Last week, there were so few Buccaneers fans here you could walk for miles without seeing one.

The cavalry has arrived.

By Friday evening, pewter and red could be seen on every block downtown.

Saturday, Bucs fans flooded downtown, the trolleys, Old Town and Fashion Valley and Mission Valley Center malls.

They wore Warren Sapp and John Lynch jerseys, red sweaters, red beaded necklaces and gold pirate flags hung on gold chains. They have red-painted nails and T-shirts with "Chucky" emblazoned, and they're carrying pirate flags.

Some have even pulled out the retro stuff: A Warrick Dunn jersey is walking around town, and he's not a Buccaneer anymore.

They are here, they are proud and they aren't ashamed to show it.

"We've been sorry for a long time, but you can believe our fans are very happy that the Bucs have finally gotten to the Big Show," said Don Smith, a Plant City native who now lives in Maryland.

The night the Bucs defeated Philadelphia for the NFC title, Smith said his phone rang nonstop; he got about 75 calls from relatives in Florida, including his mother, Betty Wright, who lives in Tampa.

"We're about to get the ring," he said. "I'm a prognosticator first, then a fan, and I feel like we'll win. It's a defensive battle versus an offensive battle and the Bucs have the defense. A good defense always beats a good offense, not to mention the Gruden factor and all he brings to the table with his knowledge of Oakland."

Smith paid $1,500 over the Internet to make sure he had a ticket to the game.

Tampa's Larry Kessler stood near the San Diego Convention Center and talked of being a season-ticket holder for 22 years. "You couldn't give tickets away in the '80s and '90s," he said.

"This is great," said Kessler, who admitted he would be a nervous wreck this morning. "The best sports experience of my life. I've been to the two Super Bowls held in Tampa standing outside, but never inside."

Rest assured, he'll be inside Qualcomm Stadium today. So will his sons, Nick and Joel. Kessler got two tickets through the Bucs' lottery system, but didn't want to have to choose one son over the other. eBay solved his problem.

"I've been going to games since before I was born," Joel Kessler said. "I'm a fan, but not as big a fan (as his father). Sometimes I would give my tickets up and sit and watch the game at home on TV. But I'm not giving this one up."

Like most Bucs fans, everything changed forever Jan. 19 when Ronde Barber intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game, scored a touchdown and secured the Bucs' first trip to the Super Bowl.

"The most surreal moment of my football life was watching Ronde Barber intercept that pass and run it back," Jason Friedman of St. Petersburg said as he stood near the Embarcadero Marina area. "I was thinking, we're going to the Super Bowl."

"I cried," added his mother, Carolyn Friedman of St. Petersburg. "I cried and I'm not ashamed to say it."

"San Diego citizens love us," Jason Friedman added. "We've heard more "Go Bucs' from the people that live here than I could even imagine. They are Chargers fans and they don't like the Raiders so they're pulling for us."

So far, Bucs and Raiders fans have coexisted peacefully, although each side isn't afraid to let its feelings be known. The Raiders accuse the Bucs of being Oakland wannabes -- having "stolen" both their coach and their pirates logo.

The Bucs respond that the Raiders are jealous because they have Gruden -- and success. There's no violence, but no love lost either.

"We've got magnets on the side of the car with the Bucs' head and they'll pull up beside us and give us the cut throat and the thumbs down and hang outside the window," Joel Kessler said. "But it's been fun."

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