Thanks Mike, from all around the world
In 1984, a bunch of crazy Buccaneer fans on the other side of the Atlantic decided to form a booster club for their favourite franchise. And coming off a pair of losing seasons, the Bucs welcomed their British colleagues by adding another 12 consecutive losing seasons. No wonder the Bucs UK called their monthly magazine "There's Always Next Year".
And then it turned around. There were new uniforms, a new coaching staff, new owners and a new stadium taking shape next to the Old Sombrero. A whole bunch of ingredients that made for a meal fit for kings, the re-birth of the Buccaneer franchise.
But nothing, no nothing, epitomized the turn-around of the franchise than one player and one play from early in the 1997 season.
Picture the scene - the Bucs are off to a 2-0 start and are leading the Vikings 7-3 nearing half-time in their Week 3 road game in Minnesota. The call from the sideline is a run up the middle to the tailback, perhaps the first legendary Gene Deckerhoff call of "Alstott up the gut."
No.40 takes the handoff and is stopped at the line. He takes a step back, goes to the left side, picks up a couple of Viking linebackers for the ride, and bulls his way into the endzone for a touchdown. Or as former Buc and then Minnesota LB Jeff Brady remembered it, "I thought he was down. I've got my shoulders square and I turn around and he's sitting right there in the endzone on top of me."
Nick Houllis has seen most Buccaneer touchdowns during his years following the franchise but he rates this as his most memorable. "The sight of Alstott in the endzone with purple shirts all around him ... amazing... simply amazing."
But this play was more than just a touchdown for the Buccaneers. For when Mike Alstott carried the ball and the Viking defense into the endzone that Sunday afternoon, he carried the fortunes of every Buccaneer fan around the world with him. No longer would the Bucs be the brunt of jokes and ridicule. Now they were a team to be reckoned with.
Phil Jones has long regarded Mike as his favourite all-time NFL player. "He helped to turn the whole image of the franchise around, as an unstoppable bowling ball of back with a heart the size of whale. The Bucs had been a laughing stock and we’d hand sand kicked in our faces for far too long. With The A-Train on board, WE started handing out the beatings and taking names in the process, signalling that we were a force to be reckoned with again."
The fans in the UK share this feeling of respect for Mike. Six times in nine seasons they voted him their favourite Buccaneer player. In
fact, no other offensive player has ever finished in the top three of the
voting since Mike became a Buccaneer back in 1996.
THE MEASURE OF THE MAN
To me, the true value of a player is how the rest of the NFL see him. As Buccaneer fans, we are often blinkered in our opinion of the heroes who wear the Tampa Bay colours. But it is when you see fans of other teams waxing lyrically about the Bucs' No.40, wishing they had him on their team, wondering if they could draft "the next Alstott" - that is when you know you have someone special on your roster.
Mike Carlson has been the color analyst on Channel 5's coverage of the NFL in the UK for over a decade and has called more than his fair share of Mike Alstott touchdowns. "My favourite memory of Mike Alstott is a cumulative one, because he provided one of the running gags of our weekly highlights, which I had to script and voice over.
"Whenever we had an Alstott run, which was generally close to the goal line and in for a score and hence included in the highlights, I would put on my best caveman voice and intone something like: Alstott get ball, put head down, run, hit line, run, hit more, run, score."
This made it simple to get through that part of what is otherwise a fairly thankless, and, week in week out, repetitive, task. So thanks Mike, for making it easy. "
Over the 32-year history of the Buccaneer franchise, there have been some memorable players to wear the uniform. Lee Roy Selmon, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch ..... all defensive standouts. When it comes to offense, then you can bring up the names of Doug Williams, James Wilder and Jimmie Giles. But no offensive player has ever captured the heart of the Buccaneer fans like Mike Alstott.
Two plays will live in memory for me on this side of the Atlantic and both ultimately came from the 2002 Super Bowl season. The Bucs won a Week 6 game against Cleveland in which Mike gained 126 yards, all but five of which came in the second half. One run over right tackle saw him break no less than seven attempted Browns tackles before finally being dragged down some 20 yards downfield.
And then, three months later, on a balmy night in San Diego, the first of six Buccaneer touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVII came from No.40. Everyone in the stadium knew Mike was getting the ball, everyone on the Raider defense knew Mike was getting the ball, and it made no difference. "Alstott up the gut, touchdown Tampa Bay". Gene Deckerhoff's famous call repeated on the most memorable stage of all.
SO THANKS MIKE
In years to come, Buccaneer fans will be telling their children and grand-children about the battering ram of a running back the Bucs drafted out of Purdue in 1996. The man who scored the final Buccaneer touchdown in the old Tampa Stadium and the man who scored the first touchdown in the Super Bowl win. But aside from the statistics, they will tell the story of the greatest back the Buccaneers have ever had.
Thank you Mike, thank you on behalf of Buccaneer fans around the world that you carried along for the ride, just like those Viking defenders you did back in 1997.