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Locker room is a house of pain

Controversial reversal and trash-talking leave players dejected, angry.

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Trent Dilfer comforts Shaun King.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000

ST. LOUIS -- Frank Middleton sat at this locker, sweaty and half-dressed, his arms folded and his legs shaking. He could hardly talk, his voice cracking intermittently as this 6-foot-3, 334-pound veteran offensive guard furiously fought back the tears.

A couple of lockers down, defensive tackle Brad Culpepper sat, his legs propped up on a chair and his head down. And around the corner from him, quarterback Shaun King sulked, appropriately dressed in black and his back turned away from everyone as he meticulously gathered his belongings.

It would have hurt like the dickens if the Bucs had gotten blown out by the Rams as many predicted. But coming as close as Tampa Bay did made the pain all the more excruciating.

"We were one big play from being in Atlanta, and it hurts," Middleton said, referring to St. Louis' lone touchdown. "But we tried. We went out swinging. And they just had more fight than us this week."

Asked if he had experienced anything as disappointing, Middleton said nothing compares.

"I mean, everybody joked about it -- we were the underdogs, people didn't think we could do it, but we knew we could," Middleton said. "And it showed on the field that we could ... I thought we had it."

The loss left many players incensed, but trash-talking toward the game's end made the feeling even worse.

With only seconds remaining, St. Louis safety Billy Jenkins nearly came to blows with several Bucs, including inactive quarterback Trent Dilfer, who pushed Jenkins. Middleton said Jenkins and other Rams were rubbing it in.

"The Rams are cowards," Middleton said. "It was awful the way they treat the game. I mean, if you win, you win. Leave it alone. But to come back on somebody's sidelines and talk smack like that is not cool.

"Everything they did will come back to haunt them tenfold. That's something I can promise anybody. They are going to have to answer to somebody, and hopefully (when the Bucs play the Rams at Raymond James Stadium) we'll get that chance to make them answer to us."

Several players were crushed by the controversial incompletion by receiver Bert Emanuel on Tampa Bay's final drive. It appeared to be a reception from TV replay angles, but officials reviewed the catch and it was changed to an incompletion.

"All you ever want is the opportunity, especially at the end of the game, and we had that opportunity," veteran center Tony Mayberry said. "You can't imagine the disappointment everybody here feels. To get such an effort from our defense, to take the most potent offense in the league and pretty much shut them completely down. ... That's just something we're going to have to deal with and probably be miserable for quite a long time."

Middleton said the ruling and being 141/2-point underdogs coming into the game made him feel as if nobody wanted Tampa Bay to win.

"It's been like that all year, man," Middleton said. "People take stuff from us. They don't want to give us a crack or an inch or nothing. It's like somebody doesn't want us to be great."

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