In my occasional series called Bucs Throwback Thursday, or in this case Flashback Friday, I take a stroll down memory lane and offer up my own personal insight and anecdotes on days gone by in Tampa Bay football history. Let me know what you think of this week’s column in the article comments, and feel free to share some of your first game memories.
Before offering up this week’s column, I pay my respects to the late, great former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune, Tom McEwen, who often started his column “Breakfast Bonus” describing a large southern-style breakfast in detail before turning the column back to sports.
Over your breakfast of a cold leftover fried pork chop from the night before, two hardboiled eggs covered in salt and black pepper, a cathead buttermilk biscuit with guava jelly, a slice of Florida cantaloupe grown in Duette, Florida and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice from Parkesdale Market in Plant City, here is this week’s column.
October 26, 1981.
I turned 11 years old. A fifth grader at Pinecrest Elementary and already an oft-teased Bucs fan. It didn’t help that my orange hair matched the team’s orange uniforms. I had bragging rights for one year after the team came within 10 points of going to the Super Bowl during the 1979 season. The following season Tampa Bay again slipped back into their lovable loser persona, and finished that year 5-10-1.
But things were looking better for me by the time my birthday rolled around that late fall day in 1981. My birthday fell on a Monday, so we had my party a couple days earlier on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t a big party; a handful of friends and family and a vanilla cake with chocolate Jello pudding icing with holes punched through to marble it. I even landed some cool gifts like a new set of Stomper 4×4 trucks and the birthday cards with a little cash in them.
After the cake and a gallon of T.G. Lee ice cream in the big clear tub were eaten, there was one more card to open. I was hoping for a $20 bill or some exorbitant amount of money to a newly turned 11-year old. What fell out of the card was better than money. It was my version of the Golden Wonka ticket.
Two ticket to see the Buccaneers hosting the Broncos in three weeks.
After my parents picked me up off the floor and brought me back to life with some smelling salts, my grin didn’t leave my face for the next 20 days. I think I slept in my creamsicle Buccaneers footie pajamas from the Sears catalog every night until the November 15th game came along. I even wore my Bucs robe despite the fact we didn’t have air conditioning and it isn’t exactly terry cloth robe weather in Florida in late October.
I didn’t care. I was going to my first Bucs game.
After making sure to do all my chores and even a few extra, not getting in trouble at school and not punching my sister Julie for the next three weeks, the day finally arrived.
My dad and I loaded up in the family car, a 1978 Dodge Diplomat and stopped at the Shop N’ Go near my house for a breakfast of Funyun’s and a Nehi Grape soda, (hey it was my birthday breakfast). Then we drove to Brandon and pulled into the fairly new K-Mart shopping center off of Highway 60. We got on a bus that would take us to the stadium for a whopping $2 per person round trip.
I sat by the window and gazed at the city of Tampa approaching as we traveled down the interstate. The bus driver turned down Himes and I could start to see the stadium emerge in the distance. All the games I had watched on television, all the ones I heard on the radio, the playoff win against the Eagles, the NFC championship loss to the Rams a week later, all of those games happened inside that concrete structure we now pulled up to.
It was my Three Rivers Stadium, my version of Fenway Park, it was the Holy Grail of Bucs football and I was about to go inside for the very first time.
I was in the Promised Land of Bucco Bruce.
Certain smells can take you back in time. Certain sights can stay with you a lifetime. Walking up those concrete ramps and entering the stands, the field was as bright of green as anything I had ever seen. The smell of Tampa cigars wafting through the air mixed with the aroma of the hotdogs grilling in the concession stands are etched in my mind.
I was convinced that this is what heaven looked like. Or at least the way I wanted it to look.
I thumbed though the program my Dad bought for me when we walked in, I watched the legends of my childhood like Lee Roy Selmon, Mark Cotney, Doug Williams and Ricky Bell warming up. The Buccaneer band played in the end zone giving it a college game day feel and the stands started filling up with a sea of orange.
The national anthem came soon and then it was time for kickoff. The game itself wasn’t great. The Bucs offense was sluggish out of the gate, but the defense held tough. The Broncos were up 7-0 at halftime, but it didn’t even matter to me. I was still waiting for someone to walk up and pinch me and wake me from this dream. The second half started and Cedric Brown retuned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown to pull the Bucs even 7-7. The packed stadium went crazy.
Denver ended up scoring the next 17 points and the final gun sounded – yes, referees actually had cap guns they shot off to end the quarters and games all the way up until 1994 – and it was over.
We made our way back to our bus and took the 30 minute trip back to Brandon to get our car. My dad, sensing my disappointment in the loss, suggested going to Pizza Hut for dinner before going home. In 1981 going out to eat was a special treat. To go to Pizza Hut was like winning the supper lotto.
As I sipped on my Pepsi in those thick red plastic glasses and stared out the window as the cars whizzed down Highway 60 we talked about the game and the sights and sounds. We both were amazed at how long TV timeouts felt when you are sitting in the stands, and we laughed at the restroom troughs that the old Tampa Stadium had as opposed to urinals.
I think I held it all game long.
The pizza arrived. We ate, we laughed some more and finally started making our way to the car. I tried to freeze that moment. A son and his Dad, spending a whole day together watching football, eating pizza. I didn’t want it to ever end. Somehow as I got in the car I didn’t feel like an 11 year-old. Somehow, I felt a little older.
I told myself if I ever become a Dad, I hope I am like my father. Taking my kids to football games, eating pizza and laughing. Creating those memories that, even today as I have a hard time remembering where my wallet is most mornings, I can still remember every detail of that special birthday 39 years ago.
As an adult and a father, I have taken my son to football games. I have went with my Dad and my son to football games. My hope turned into a reality.
The Bucs lost the football game that November afternoon 24-7 to the Broncos, but I didn’t lose.
I won. I won a memory that nothing will ever take away.
And an everlasting bond shared between a father and a son.
Finding highlights of that Broncos and Bucs game was difficult, but here is the NFL Films recap of the 1982 season. And below that is a bonus video. For those who missed out on the great toys of the 70s and 80s. Enjoy.