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Reaction in San Diego

At long, long last, it's nirvana for some ordinary fans

One couple, season ticket holders since the bad times, see their Bucs in the Super Bowl.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- They left Los Angeles just after sunup Sunday, headed south to a place they had never been before. And to an event they never thought they would attend.

The Super Bowl.

Craig and Terri Mathis left their three kids with Terri's father and grandmother back at home in the little Central Florida town of Clermont and flew to L.A. on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, they drove 120 miles south to San Diego.

Craig, 32, is a network engineer for AOL Time Warner; Terri works for a gymnastics center. They have been Bucs season ticket holders long enough to remember when their team was laughed off the field.

"In 1997, when the Green Bay Packers beat the Bucs and clinched the Central Division, half the people in Tampa Stadium were Packers fans," Craig said from his seat in Section 41 of Qualcomm Stadium two hours before kickoff. "They (the Packers) paraded around Tampa Stadium. It was humiliating.

"Now, it's just euphoria. We saw a lot of Bucs fans on the trip down, and in line to get into the stadium. There are far more Raiders fans here, but the camaraderie we have is unbelievable."

"There's (Mike) Alstott!" Terri screamed as the Bucs warmed up. "This is incredible."

They had to park several miles from the stadium and take a shuttle bus. They had to wait in long lines and then empty their pockets, get frisked, go through a metal detector and two sets of checkpoints. And they were hot and hungry and a little overwhelmed.

But it was okay.

"Programs are $20, hats are $29 and, can you believe this, a small beer is $8," Craig said. "My wife bought a hat, which is unfortunate. But it's her money. We got two hot dogs and two sodas for $16. That's not too bad. And they gave us these great seat cushions, and each of them has a radio in the pouch. How cool is that!"

The most important thing, he said, was that they -- and their team -- were there.

And then Celine Dion and the Dixie Chicks were finished, and the jets had streaked overhead. The Bucs won the coin toss. The moment was finally at hand.

"It's still hard to believe they (the Bucs) are here," Terri said. "And that we are here."

* * *

The argument is often made that the Super Bowl no longer belongs to the common man. That it's not a public event. That only high rollers and people with connections can get in to see it. To a large extent, they're right.

But if you're a true believer, and you really want to see the game, and you're a little lucky, you can still find a way.

The Mathises live in a modest house. They worry about paying their mortgage and raising their three young children. And nearly every Sunday, they dress up and go to Winter Park Presbyterian Church, except during the football season.

The moment after Ronde Barber intercepted a pass and scored a touchdown to seal Tampa Bay's victory over Philadelphia, Craig got on the Internet and found two tickets to Los Angeles for $500 -- $700 less than two tickets to San Diego. He won two game tickets in the Bucs season ticket lottery, arranged to stay in a friend's apartment in Los Angeles, and asked for Monday off.

"We're just an average family," Craig said. "So it was kind of difficult for us to do this. But when you've stuck with someone or something through the hard times, you want to see them succeed. You have to see how it plays out."

And like a juvenile delinquent who grew up to win a Nobel Prize, the Bucs have done their fans proud.

High atop the stands on the Tampa Bay side of the field, as the game neared its end, Bucs fans sensed something special was happening. The cow was crouched and ready to jump over the moon, water would run uphill, and Monday morning, the sun would rise in the west. Surrounded by other long-suffering fans, including a man seated behind them who painted his upper body pewter and black, Craig and Terri Mathis hugged each other.

At least where the Bucs and their fans are concerned, the long, national nightmare was almost over.

"Everyone is just going ballistic," Craig said. "We've waited a long time for this. Some people never thought this day would happen. But it did.

"And we were there to see it."

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