By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000
TAMPA -- For too long, this was an NFL dumping place. Lowly link on pro football's food chain. Players cut by stronger franchises, as September was about to bloom, would surface at the Buccaneer dungeon, begging for second, third or final chances with Tampa Bay's renowned weaklings.
How glorious the change.
"It's far different from 1996," said Tony Dungy, recollecting his first season as Bucs coach. "So much more difficult now to make our 53-man roster. Some of (our) final cuts will go elsewhere in the NFL and play well. Decisions can be borderline. This is an inexact science.
"Cracking our team on the defensive line, at wide receiver and linebacker is especially hard right now. Several guys we cut Sunday would surely have made it four or five years ago.
"While we're in a much better situation as an organization, late August can become a real pain for coaches. It's no fun letting a player go, especially if it's somebody who has done a lot of great things for you."
Was he thinking Culpepper?
You'd figure Dungy grinds hard in search of the absolute 53 best players. "Not really," he said. "At our first training camp meeting, I tell them all that it won't be the best 53 who make it. There are lots of factors and situations.
"For instance, Brad Culpepper might've been our 25th or 26th best player. Perhaps even higher. But once you're past the first 22 (starters on offense and defense), it comes down to what roles they'll play, with big emphasis on special teams, trying to keep an eye on the future."
Culpepper, a popular 31-year-old defensive tackle, was purged a week ago -- to be snagged immediately by NFC Central rival Chicago, a team perched down the NFL food chain from today's more gifted, quite respected Bucs.
Thirteen days from now, at the Tampa Bay home opener, Culpepper will reappear at Raymond James Stadium, playing for the Bears, doing everything he can to beat a Bucs team that was so recently the center of his professional universe.
It can be curious evolution.
Even with far fewer jobs in question with the more potent Bucs, there will be kids who squash the odds with the Super Bowl contender, arising from July long( shot to one of 53 who survive to experience September on Dungy Island.
Aaron Stecker plays on.
I applaud his election to Dungy's house. I'll even predict that, somewhere between now and January's post-season possibilities, we'll see dynamic goods from the 5-foot-10, 205-pound fellow with blurring quickness, multifaceted skills and a documented degree of indefatigability.
"He's an eye-catcher," Dungy said. "Aaron is good on kickoff coverage, has real possibilities as a kick returner and there are reasons to believe he can eventually do exciting stuff as a running back and pass receiver."
I love the Stecker story. He has considerable NFL roots, being born and athletically cultivated in Green Bay, where winters freeze and the Packers are religion.
In the Wisconsin neighborhood where Vince Lombardi became legend and Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren were heading for Super Bowls in the early 1990s, teenager Stecker was a sensation at Ashwaubenon High School. Voted his state's best prep player.
Since then, Stecker's football trip has been spiced with U-turns and then heroic rebounds. Recruited by the Wisconsin Badgers, he spent two years at Madison before accepting that almost nobody but Heisman Trophy behemoth Ron Dayne would be granted a Saturday call at running back.
Stecker transferred to Western Illinois, a relative collegiate outpost. For two seasons, he was extraordinary for the Leathernecks, running for 3,081 yards and scoring 36 touchdowns. Even so, on NFL draft weekend, there would be no call for Aaron.
He drove to Chicago in the summer of '99 and got a tryout with the Bears. Chicago was foundering at the NFC Central bottom. Ravenous for impact at running back. Stecker didn't get much of a chance. He was waived by the Bears exactly 363 days ago.
Tampa Bay saw something. Seven weeks later, the Bucs put Aaron on their practice squad. Almost nobody noticed around here. Dungy's gang was in the heart of a run to the NFC Championship Game.
Stecker's next assignment came last spring, being dispatched by the Bucs for off-season development with the Scottish Claymores. He dazzled, becoming offensive MVP of NFL Europe.
Aaron's exploits hit U.S. network television. We could watch the league final as Stecker led Scotland against the Rhein Fire and former Heisman Trophy quarterback Danny Wuerffel from the University of Florida, who has wound up with the Packers.
Aaron has been playing football almost non-stop for 14 months, back to his appearance at Bears camp. Stecker doesn't look tired. Speed, moves and desire remain sharp. It's okay to frown at the departure of Culpepper, but the NFL arrival of Aaron Stecker is worth a smile.