For 25 years, London fan has worshiped Tampa Bay Buccaneers from afar
The team is not good, the future looks foggy, and hope seems as if it is a long way away. The sights are ugly, and the sounds are painful, and the predictions are positively awful. Yeah, being a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has its hardships, doesn't it? Just ask Paul Stewart, who has finally been followed home by the team he loves.
The imminently English Stewart, 44, sits in the corner of a hotel lounge, looking out the window over the London rooftops. The familiar names roll off his tongue, sounding almost musical in his British accent. He speaks of Booker Reese and Mike Alstott, of Broderick Thomas and Ronde Barber, of Vinny Testaverde and Warren Sapp, of Derrick Brooks and Dexter Manley. He knows them all, the good players and the bad, the ones who have shaped his Sundays, and yours.
Forgive him, if you will, if he talks of Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and his beloved Bucs at Wembley Stadium as if it belongs to him. In a way, it does.
From the time Stewart was 17, the Bucs have been his team. It has not mattered how often they've lost, and it has not mattered how ugly they've dressed, and it has not mattered that they've played half a world away. It hasn't mattered who has coached or who has quarterbacked or who has been drafted. This is the team he chose, and this is the team he has kept. "It's a little bit mad, isn't it?" Stewart says, and grins.
Well, yeah. It is. Consider:
• If Stewart's 9-year-old daughter, Tanith, had been a boy, she would have been named Trent. As in Dilfer. Which, everyone will agree, beats Booker, Lars and Leeman.
• On the night the Bucs advanced to Super Bowl XXXVII by beating the Eagles, Stewart sat on the floor in his home and wept. Days later, he was on a plane headed to San Diego.
• Stewart has run the Bucs UK fan club for the past 25 years. Once, the club had a caption contest for a photo of Stewart shaking hands with Testaverde. The winning entry was: "Don't squeeze too hard, that's my interception-throwing hand."
How does this happen? How does an otherwise sane operations manager for IBM, the son of a former professional soccer player, fall in love with a foreign sport such as American football? Why does he pick a victory-strapped franchise such as the Bucs as his own? In a soccer-mad, rugby-mad, cricket-mad nation, why suffer through fading radio signals and spotty Internet streams to follow the NFL?
Turns out, part of it was luck. And part of it was the Bucs.
In 1982, Stewart remembers, he was as passionate about soccer as most English teenagers, especially those whose fathers had played the game for Tottenham. But Channel 4, a British public TV network, wanted to show new sports to its audience, and it decided to put on a weekly one-hour show about American football.
It was the night of Nov. 29 that Stewart fell in love. He watched a Monday night game in which the Bucs held off the Miami Dolphins 23-17 when Mike Washington intercepted a pass at the goal line on the last snap of the game. "That team looks pretty good," Stewart remembers thinking. "I'll follow them."
Considering the seasons that followed, Stewart may have chosen in haste. "There comes a time in your life where you think, 'I just may have made a mistake,' " Stewart says. "It would be like someone in 1919 saying, 'We don't need that Babe Ruth guy. He can go off to New York. We're going to win loads of championships without him.'
"It's along those lines. Don't blame the Curse of Doug Williams. Don't blame Culverhouse. You can blame me for 14 straight losing seasons."
From that game, however, Stewart was hooked. He has been to the States eight times, and he has seen 12 games (eight victories, counting the Super Bowl). Twenty-five years ago he formed Bucs UK, which now has 300 members. He maintains Bucpower.com, a Web site that includes descriptions of every Bucs game and most of their players.
Only once, Stewart says, did he stop being a Bucs fan. It was in 1990, and Ray Perkins' team was on a six-game losing streak. "I remember thinking 'Perkins is going to get fired, and there's going to be another coach, and I just want to follow a winning team,' " he says. So he stripped the photos from his office wall, pulled off his Bucs shirt and threw them in the corner.
The next morning, he put them all back. "I'd describe myself as a realistic fan," Stewart says. "I want the Bucs to win, but if they lose, I don't kick the cat."
Still, there are easier things to do than follow the Bucs from another continent. Before the Internet, Stewart would listen late into the night on Armed Forces Radio to find a result. Even now, he watches games with a television hooked to a computer hooked to a Slingbox. If he wants a jersey or a cap, he orders it online. Or he flies to Tampa to pick one up.
"Last year, I saw the Lightning on Thursday, a high school game on Friday, USF Bulls next morning, the Red Sox and Rays in (the American League Championship Series) Game Six on Saturday and the Bucs on Sunday. On Monday, I went to One Buc and got to hold the (Lombardi) Trophy. Tell me five better vacation days than that."
There have been a few grins along the way. Once, Bucs placekicker Martin Gramatica — who had changed his jersey to No. 10 to honor Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona — was banned from the Bucs UK fantasy league. After all, Maradona is reviled in England.
Another example. When Bucs UK has its golf tournament, it has a "farthest from the hole" competition. The winner gets a photograph of former Bucs punter Dave Warnke. Still another: On the night the Bucs won the Super Bowl, Stewart said, "I don't care if we have 10 losing seasons in a row now." Yeah, it's his fault.
Given all that, imagine how big it must be that the team has come to London. "There is a buzz around our club that has been unsurpassed from our 25 years and never will be again," he said. Not only that, but Stewart expects the Bucs to win. "I'm a fan," he says. "I have to believe. Yes, it's more than 99 times out of 100 the Patriots are going to win. But I've got to believe in the one."
Oh, yeah? How? "Well, unfortunately, Tom Brady's plane arrived here," Stewart says. "We tried to divert it to Munich. But for it to happen, I'd say that Brady gets injured. The Bucs get a quick score, and the Patriots start to panic. 'Hang on, we could lose here to one of the worst teams.' And the Bucs start to believe."
Stewart looks at you as if to ask you to see it, too. Over the years, you have seen that look on the faces of a lot of Bucs fans. It is the look of hope when circumstance suggest very little exists. Maybe you have felt it yourself. "I must have done something bad in another life," Stewart says, laughing softly.
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 25 October 2009