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Super Bowl XXXVII

They've arrived and so have we

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Here in the big time, heads turn as you walk past. There is a flicker of recognition, a look of respect.

Here in the big time, the cameras flash, the crowds gather and the competition pays attention. The colors are brighter here, and the air is cleaner, and everyone knows your name.

Here in the big time, the real estate is exclusive and the view is perfect. If you live here, you get used to the envy. Also, to the beauty.

Look around, Tampa Bay.

This is your new neighborhood.

As a community, you have arrived. Across the nation, people are speaking your name, and the words are filled with the sounds of recognition, of respect, of reverence. There is something special about Tampa Bay, they say. Something great.

After all this time, after all this scorn, it feels pretty great, doesn't it?

Such is the power of a game. When the Bucs play in today's Super Bowl, when they take the field and display power and passion and strength of character, the same adjectives will paint the area from which they come. This is how football works. A team shows its fire, and a community warms itself in the glow.

For years, all Tampa Bay heard was the laughter, and the only real recourse was to fall back a certain distance and join in. The Bucs were a running joke, and a passing one, and the rest of the nation used Tampa Bay for a punch line. Part of the laughter bounced onto the community, of course. Tampa Bay laughed, too, because, well, what was the other choice?

As a result, Tampa Bay grew into an area that was like an elementary school kid who had been picked on too much. As an area, it was in dire need of analysis.

What a paradox. The team was so simple, it gave the rest of us a complex. The Sunshine Skyway bridge could not have covered the inferiority. Every blown draft pick, every blown ballgame left a stain on Tampa Bay. Bucco Bruce was our mayor. Hugh Culverhouse was our poster child. We were the town Doug Williams left behind.

After all, Tampa Bay is a collection of a lot of people from a lot of places who delight in saying how good things were back home. Much of the time, they were talking about the teams whose colors they still wore. The Bucs? To these people, the Bucs were the bungling emissaries of a tiny burg that wanted to be more than it was.

They dressed funny. They played funny. Frankly, they made the rest of Tampa Bay feel funny. A losing team is like a relative you don't like. You want to stay at arm's length. For goodness' sake, you don't want anyone to think you're together.

But a winning team? With a winning team, you go to all the functions, and you tell everyone you're related, and you can't wait to hang the family coat of arms in the living room.

Once, in elementary schools in Tampa Bay, other kids made fun of the kids who wore Bucs gear. It was an invitation to scorn. These days? It's standard uniform.

Things have changed. The Bucs have been pretty good now for a half-dozen seasons. The laughter has not been loud for a long time. But those old Bucs have never been very far in the subconscious, have they?

When the Bucs made this season's Super Bowl, however, it marked a true arrival. The Super Bowl is the grandest stage in America. Hey, look at the name. You don't get invited unless you're super.

There are those who do not buy in. It is only a game, they say. Why is it so important? The players are millionaires from across the country, united only by a common uniform and paycheck. Why do they hold the hopes of Tampa Bay in their hands?

Because it's the Super Bowl, silly.

Haven't you been paying attention?

Go ahead. Spend all the energy you wish saying that a nation's love for sports is out of proportion, that too much self-worth is tied to our teams.

If nothing else, however, this past week proves that sports do matter to a community, that a team can hold the hearts of an area as firmly as a football cradled against its chest.

The Bucs have become something admirable, something lovable. In a way, they always were. In a way, Tampa Bay always was, too. But the acknowledgement from around the nation means something.

It always has been that way. Cities absorb the personality of their sports teams. Many of us grew to recognize Pittsburgh as a rugged, no-nonsense sort of city when we watched the Steelers, a rugged, no-nonsense sort of team, play in the Super Bowl. We watched the hearty, hard-working Packers, and it gave us a glimpse into the hearty, hard-working people who live in Green Bay.

It was the same with the Bears, a boisterous, intimidating bunch from a boisterous, intimidating city. You could see the brash part of New York in Joe Namath, and the menace of it in Lawrence Taylor. You could see the high-spending team from Washington or the flair of a team from San Francisco or the rambunctious trail herd of a team from Dallas. We think of Oakland as a rough, wild place because of the rough, wild Raiders.

And so it has been this past week, as the Bucs represented the better parts of Tampa Bay to a nation. And get this: The nation loves the Bucs. Writers keep talking about what a fun, friendly bunch of guys the Bucs are.

Turns out, this enjoyable bunch of Bucs should be put on a chamber of commerce pamphlet. Come, it should say. See an area with the character of John Lynch, the determination of Derrick Brooks, the work ethic of Brad Johnson. Come. See sunsets as beautiful as Simeon Rice's outlook, beaches as smooth as Ronde Barber, water as warm as the story of Joe Jurevicius.

This team has redefined us, shaped us in its image. We're as fun as Warren Sapp, as confident as Brian Kelly, as powerful as Mike Alstott. We're as smart as Jon Gruden, as solid as Keenan McCardell, as colorful as Monte Kiffin.

Great team, great area. See? Like Keyshawn Johnson, we think we're pretty cool.

Here in the big time, this is how it is. You can find a team in a city, and a city in a team.

This past week, you could find both in Southern Cal.

Take another look. Aren't both of them all you ever wanted?

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