Imagine being a fan of a sports team called “The Yucks.”
Now, imagine a kid living in Brooklyn, NY being that fan. How the hell does something like that happen? When I was about fourteen years old, my best friend and I became football fans. He, like most New Yorkers, quickly latched onto the powerhouse New York Giants. And me? Well, I was a contrarian, so there was no chance I was ever going to root for them. How about the Jets then? No. I couldn’t find anything likable about them, either. So, I tried on a metaphorical Steelers jersey but then gave that up, too. Something just wasn’t clicking. Then, during a game I now can’t recall, I saw Warren Sapp in primetime, arrogant and brash, dominant and unapologetic. The man, the jersey with its striking red and pewter hues, and the skull on the helmet, which I thought was by far the coolest logo in the league, all did it for me. I knew then that I was going to be a Bucs fan.
I loved Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber and was captivated by the defense that dominated with elegance. Unlike other teams, whose defensive coordinators (DC) sent more rushers at the opposing quarterback (QB), Monte Kiffin, the Buccaners’ DC ran a Tampa 2 scheme, wherein the defensive lineman were the only players rushing the QB. Why did he do that? Because the defensive was full of speed, and therein was its beauty. Power didn’t beat you; athleticism did! And when each man played his part well, few things were more enchanting. Kiffin used to say, “Let’s be humming.” And Dexter Jackson would follow up with: “Watch this Buc defense swarm.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the ultimate rags to riches story. Beginning as an expansion team in 1976, they were the ugly stepbrothers of the Miami Dolphins (although I’ve always loved their uniforms). They had one truly elite player (Lee Roy Selmon) and a bunch of misfits. Even though I wasn’t alive for those terrible years, I identified with their tenacity, having believed that I was a loser too, and finding hope from their will to rise. The Bucs weren’t the Cowboys and certainly not the Dolphins. Their fan base didn’t reach the numerical heights of Steeler Nation and their pirate was considered a sissy when compared to the Raiders logo. So, why would a kid who didn’t grow up in Tampa want to be a Bucs fan? There were seemingly so many better options.
After the Super Bowl run, the Bucs were in disarray. Great player after great player was traded and released. We suffered for over a decade without a playoff win. And we were the laughingstock of league once again, with people referring to the team as the Succaneers. But, yet again, I still identified with them, this bunch of guys who put so much of themselves into winning. If you look back on those losing seasons, just as the ones in the 80s and 90s, those teams frequently fought with passion; they just didn’t have the talent. Like me, their ambition far exceeded it. And like the fans of the 80s and 90s, I hoped that, someday, this little team in a small city, could again rise above it all.
I felt the anguish that Sapp felt when in 1995 (after being drafted) he heard a reporter refer to his new team as the Yuccaneers. I thought, this is who we are now; it’s who we are again. In essence, I chose my own suffering, and most of my friends were sure to remind me of the fact. Being different, choosing a team in a far-off city, exposed me to ridicule; you get what you get for wanting to be an individual. In a way, my choice was a sign of disrespect to certain Giants fans. I missed out on the two Super Bowls the Giants won in the mid 2000s, and was told, “You weren’t even part of the 2002 Super Bowl run.” The resentment was palpable.
But if you knew me then, you would have known that the Super Bowl run was only an aspect of my decision. To me, the Bucs were the perfect franchise. The logo, the colors, the great underdog story of a once second rate team – these were also important reasons. I loved Jon Gruden and Brad Johnson, whose offense was often ridiculed by reporters. I loved Jeff Garcia, who at one point continued to play a game with a bloody, broken nose. I loved Chris Hovan, who was told he was too small to be a great defensive tackle. And I loved Doug Williams, the great Black quarterback whom nobody else wanted.
So, if you ever knew me, you’d know that I’d likely identify with this second-rate team. The old Bucs, the Yucks, were every kid who was told he wasn’t smart enough; they were every person whom no one wanted to encourage. They were the people left behind and told that they didn’t have much to offer. Sports teams are often reflections of their fan-bases. Cowboys and Yankees fans tend to conceive of themselves in bright lights. Buc fans, well, we can only say that we always hoped to someday get there.