Choosing an NFL team can be be an utterly tedious and bitterly defining moment for a sports fan. I always pitied those that were faced with that decision. I never had a choice.
When you are born to a family that schedules weddings, Christmases, and other family functions around Tampa Bay Buccaneer games, picking an NFL team is not exactly a democratic process. When Grandpa is a passionate fan who has had season tickets since the team's 1976 entry to the NFL and has only missed two preseason games since, you do not objectively evaluate options and decide which team you like the most.
Being a Buccaneer fan was a de facto title placed upon me at birth. I happily played along.
With some of my earliest memories taking place at Tampa Stadium, my childhood Mecca which has now become a grass parking lot, I idolized an ever-changing group of NFL misfits while rooting full-heartedly against legends such as Barry Sanders, Brett Favre, and the late Reggie White.
While horrendous attendance figures proved that other Tampanians were discontent with the Bucs, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my creamsicle orange-clad heroes that included Paul Gruber, Kenny Gant, Hardy Nickerson, and a very young Mike Alstott.
Game days were often painfully predictable: unless Green Bay or Chicago were in town, the stadium would be nearly empty and the game would almost always end in a Buccaneer loss. It was a big occasion if Coach Sam Wyche led the team to a victory but there was really no surprise or disappointment after a loss.
Mentality would change when the hard-nosed but less fan-friendly Malcom Glazer took over ownership of the team in 1995. Tony Dungy was soon brought in as coach for the 1996 season and, seemingly out of nowhere, in 1997 loyal Bucs fans were finally rewarded with a winning season. The team would make it to the divisional playoffs that year and I became further mesmerized by the Bucs when I experienced the final game in what had now been renamed Houlihan's Stadium, a 20-10 Wild Card victory over the Lions.
The 1997 season sparked a newer, much more highly profiled and successful era for the Bucs. Our philosophies as fans were completely changed as every game now seemed meaningful and trips to the new Raymond James Stadium were intense and nerve-racking. It was a place that was fully embraced by the stereotype-following new fans who acted as if the Bucs had always been playoff contenders and took victories for granted.
For me, it seemed surreal that the team that was once irrelevant and that I was constantly ribbed for cheering for, was suddenly a notable NFL franchise.
There were numerous stories throughout the time. Some of them were incredibly joyful such as Alstott's many punishing runs or Shaun King's rise to home town prominence during the 1999 campaign. Others were heart-wrenching and nauseating like the loss of new fan-favorite Joe Jurevicious' infant son or the simple mention of "The Bert Emmanuel Play" in the 1999 NFC Championship Game against St. Louis.
The crowning moment as a fan came obviously in 2002 when the Bucs reached Super Bowl XXXVII and defeated the Oakland Raiders to become NFL champions for the first time in franchise history. Although I still think that I got more of a thrill out of watching the Bucs finally pull through against the Eagles in the NFC Championship on Veterans Stadium's final football evening, the Super Bowl gave tremendous closure to the best football season that we had ever witnessed.
The franchise has been on some what of a chaotic decline since their pinnacle moment in 2002. The Jon Gruden/Bruce Allen regime drew much disapproval from fans, including myself, in the years following Gruden's major breakthrough as coach. They tested the loyalty of their followers by dismissing Tampa mainstays such as John Lynch and Warren Sapp without any form of grace or understanding.
It has been a trying time for the franchise in the last couple of years. Due to a mix of public criticism and a struggling local and national economy, Buccaneer fan support seems to be dwindling. The owners that once bragged about their season-ticket waiting list reaching upwards of 150,000 are now being forced to resort to the "buy season tickets, please" commercials and "come pick your seat" days that were once reserved for the baseball team across the bay.
However, with the foundation that was laid during my early youth, there is no doubt where my NFL fan support will continue to lye. For better or worse, the Bucs are all that we have and whether it is creamsicle orange (which is making a return for at least one game this season) or red and pewter, our support will be firmly behind the team on the field.
After all, I do not have a choice.