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'They'll be heroes no matter what'

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

The game in photos

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000

For Bucs fans, the NFC Championship Game on Sunday went from stomach-churner to nail-biter to heartbreaker -- all in the final minute.

The Bucs drove down the field in an attempted comeback, but with 47 seconds left, a video review overturned a key reception by Bert Emanuel, leaving many Bucs fans feeling cheated. Two incompletions later, the noise in the Trans World Dome reached deafening noise levels as the St. Louis Rams secured a tense 11-6 victory.

Crowds watching in the Tampa Bay area also reached a fever pitch.

"It's pathetic," 31-year-old Julian Petrocky of Tampa said of the reversed call as he watched a big-screen TV showing Rams players celebrating. "They need to rename them the St. Louis Shams. It was an awful call and everybody saw it. It's a tragedy."

His feelings were echoed by others at Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg.

"You are looking at the worst post-season call that has ever existed," said Andy Latimer, 26. "Tampa was robbed of the opportunity to make a great play because the refs made a bad call."

The call may have long-lasting effects on Tom Altman, 39, of New Port Richey.

"I will never watch the NFL again," said Altman, watching the game at the Dogwater Cafe in Port Richey. "Change the channel."

Many Bucs fans directed their anger at the referees.

"We were totally, utterly robbed," said Erin Dunn, 35, of St. Petersburg. "Those refs are blind."

Dunn, dressed in a Bucs jersey with sparkling "Go Bucs" painted on her cheeks, watched the game at Ferg's with her best friend, Diana DeVore, 34, of St. Petersburg. Both acted like trains and yelled "Chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga. Choo! Choo!" when Mike "The A-Train" Alstott carried the ball.

Despite the loss and the apparent bad call, Dunn and DeVore said they were happy about the game and season.

"It could've gone either way," Dunn said. "We didn't get crushed. They are our homeboys and they will always be champions to us."

At halftime, Bucs fans watching the game at Baker's Sports Bar in downtown Tampa said the team had earned a hero's welcome whether it won or lost.

"They'll be heroes no matter what. They've come a long way," said Pat Prickett, 56, of Temple Terrace.

As of 11 p.m. Sunday, 300 to 400 fans had turned out at Raymond James Stadium to welcome the team home.

The fans kept themselves busy chanting, "We were robbed." They carried signs that read "Instant Replay Equals Instant Ripoff," "Can You Spell Conspiracy," and "We Still Believe." One fan carried a sign calling for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

Even though the Bucs were not scheduled to arrive until 2 a.m., fans were determined to stay.

"We'll wait as long as we have to," said Jennifer Coulter, 34. "They need the fan support. It will make them feel better."

The day had started with high hopes.

Before the game at the Scoreboard Sports Bar & Grill in Holiday, a crowd of about 100 ordered wings and beer, shot pool, reminisced about the Bucs' magical season and predicted it wouldn't end Sunday.

"I believe this is a game of destiny," said O.P. Herndon of Holiday. "Our defense is so strong."

At Bubba's Ale House in New Port Richey, 21-year-old Jason Gambino groaned as the Bucs gave up a second-quarter safety. Then Gambino reflected on what the Bucs' season has meant to Tampa Bay.

"The camaraderie is what this is all about," he said. "I mean, everywhere I go, I see Tampa Bay fans. And all they're talking about is the Bucs."

Rob Montaudo was one of the relatively few Bucs fans who went to the game in St. Louis.

In the last two minutes, he stood silently. The game felt a lot like many Bucs games: The score was tight, and his heart was racing.

"My heart's not going to take it," he said.

In the last few seconds of the final drive, Montaudo knew the prospects weren't good. "We weren't even supposed to be here," he said.

And then, when it ended, he gave a Rams fan a congratulatory high-five.

"We competed," he said quietly. "The best team won today."

Dunn, no relation to Bucs running back Warrick Dunn, said as she was leaving Ferg's in St. Petersburg that the Bucs and their fans should hold their heads high.

"It's been a long time since we've seen the entire bay area pull together," Dunn said. "There is a bridge across the bay that wasn't there before and I'm happy to be a part of it. It's invigorating."

-- Times staff writers Linda Gibson, David Karp and Cary Davis contributed to this report.

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