Before wild finish, Bucs cornerbacks taken for wild ride
The zaniest day of their professional life dawned in Tampa, detoured through Canadian air space, featured a frenetic car ride through northern New Jersey, and ended somewhere in the heart of euphoria. "This is going to be forever memorable for me," said Jamel Dean, one of the passengers on this hectic odyssey, "because I've never experienced anything like this before."

On a typical afternoon, the story of how Dean and fellow Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting arrived at MetLife Stadium for Sunday's game against the Jets would stand up as a headline. Instead, it served only as a harbinger for the bizarre, breathtaking day their team experienced.

"They flew to Canada?" incredulous tight end Rob Gronkowski said when asked about the pair's arrival only minutes before the 1 p.m. kickoff. "I didn't know anything about that. That's out of control."

The surreal chain of events actually was set off Saturday, when the Bucs activated both from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Unable to travel on the team plane at that point, the organization arranged an early-morning private flight for the pair on Sunday. But upon arriving at the airport, Dean learned the pilot had tested positive.

"So I saw Sean, so I was like, 'Hey Sean, did they call you?'" Dean said. "He was like, 'No.' I was like, 'Wait, they didn't tell you the pilot called out sick?' He's like, 'What?' So then now I'm trying to figure out, is someone playing a prank on me?"

Dean said two to three hours passed before another pilot could be found, resulting in a takeoff from Tampa at 9:40 a.m. Both dozed off for a nap during the flight, only to wake up with a suspicious feeling the trip was taking longer than normal.

"We're checking the time," Dean said. "The time said 12:15. (Murphy-Bunting) asked me if Newark (N.J.) is in a different time zone. I was like, ‘I don't think it's in Central time.' So I get here and find out that we took a detour in the air to get here."

A drastic detour, according to coach Bruce Arians. "We wanted them to start (the game)," he said. "It was one of those things typical of this day. The pilot showed up, had COVID. ... And hell, they went all the way to Canada before they ever got here."

The pair's car got a police escort to MetLife Stadium, 14 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. Dean called it "the wildest driving experience" of his life. "We were literally just weaving through traffic trying to get to the stadium," he added. "Once (the driver) said, ‘You guys, I'm letting you know this is going to be a rough ride because I've got to keep up with the police.' So me and Sean, we both put our seat belt on."

They arrived roughly 15 minutes before kickoff, dressing, stretching and warming up on their own before joining their team on the sideline. Both finished with two tackles; Murphy-Bunting exited after getting shaken up late in the first half.

"The hardest part was really just jumping into the game and then trying to get my flow going while everybody else has already got their rhythm going," Dean said. "After a few plays, then I finally had calmed down."

The afternoon only got crazier. Controversial receiver Antonio Brown completely disrobed himself from the waist up and exited the stadium in his final appearance as a Buc. Then Tom Brady engineered a 93-yard, game-winning touchdown drive in the game's final two minutes. Arians encapsulated it best. "It's been that kind of day."

Joey Knight, The Tampa Times, published 3 January 2022