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The Party Line

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By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- The difference between Bucs Backers and Rams Fans isn't team loyalty or love of the game.

"It's brains," said Jim Robinson of Tampa. "We know better than to stand out in the cold."

Robinson, 29, and George Kizer, 32, partied in shirt sleeves with hundreds of other Bucs fans inside the warmth of the Adams Mark Hotel on Sunday afternoon as their counterparts in blue and yellow froze in the streets.

"We're not stupid," Kizer said. "We're from Florida, baby, and we know how stay warm."

Keith "Big Nasty" Kunzig, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 320-pound bear of a man with a painted face and rhinoceros horn sticking from his forehead, led the faithful in a hometown cheer that could be heard three floors below in the lobby.

"TAMPA!" he yelled.

"BAY!" the crowd responded.

"TAMPA!"

"BAY!"

"I'm a master heckler," Kunzig said. "I've got a special cheer to rattle Kurt Warner: WORM-ER! WORM-ER!"

Dave Eskew, a season-ticket holder from Palm Harbor, said the gathering reminded him of home.

"This is just like a tailgate party at Ray Jay," said Eskew, 29. "We're in here having a good time while all the Rams Fans are outside freezing their a---- off."

Eskew's brother, Marc, a Chicago resident and season-ticket holder who "commutes" to Bucs home games, chided the Rams Fans as Johnny-come-latelys.

"Remember this is really an L.A. team," the 33-year-old electrical engineer said. "Where's all the West Coast fans?"

With kickoff less than an hour away, Big Nasty gathered his troops and marched them off toward the Trans World Dome. "Let the red tide roll," he said. "There is strength in numbers."

One woman held a sign that read: "Silence of the Rams." Another brandished a placard featuring a slaughtered sheep and the words "A Feast Fit for a King."

Russ Barner, a k a "The Sign Man," the first Buccaneer fan to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, prepared a special sign: "The Rams will sing the St. Louis Blues."

A pack of Rams Fans, their faces painted yellow and blue, taunted The Sign Man and Big Nasty as they sauntered past. "The Bucs stop here," they yelled.

Barner just smiled, held up his sign and said, "Start singing."

Ruben Blanco, a Tampa native and lifelong Buc fan, said he was assured of a victory Saturday night by Don Shula.

"He said the Bucs were a sure thing," Blanco said. "St. Louis is just a stop on the road to Atlanta."

At the intersection of Fourth and Washington, the Bucs Backers were stopped in their tracks by two women blowing kisses.

"Welcome to St. Louis," 65-year-old Jane Comerio told Big Nasty as she head-butted him in the stomach. "Hope you know I'm here to raise hell."

Her friend, "St. Louis Sandy" Wesling, a 61-year-old exotic dancer, showed the Big Nasty crew how the Rams were going to kick the Bucs all the way back to Tampa.

"I can kick high, I can kick low," she said. "I can even do splits."

Big Nasty gave St. Louis Sandy a hug. She assured the lumbering giant that he probably would never meet a bigger fruitcake than her.

"You got to love this town," Big Nasty said. "You'll never meet a nicer bunch of fans."

Across the street from the stadium, the Bucs Backers ran into the main contingent of Rams Fans.

Forty-one-year-old Tom Lane strapped an actual ram's head, which he had dyed blue, complete with horns, which he had painted yellow, to his chest and searched the parking lot for a Tampa Bay fan.

"I haven't rammed anybody with it yet," he said. "But I sure when I do, it will hurt."

Doug Ross, a 32-year-old self-professed "Super Fan" who likes to dress like Elvis as often as he can, and his big brother, John, dragged an effigy of Warren Sapp.

"He's a sap" said John Ross, 40. "Just like the Tampa Bay defense is going to come apart at the seams."

One by one, bundled-up Rams Fans came up and kicked and punched No. 99. But then all attention turned to a man in a yellow L.A. Rams jacket with a watermelon on his head.

"There are seven of us out here," he said. "We all have melons on our heads."

The natural question, "Why?"

"I couldn't tell you," he said. "We just do."

* * *

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