See you in Canton, Ronde

The Bucs and their fans owe plenty to Ronde Barber.

click to enlarge FUTURE HALL OF FAMER: After 16 years, five Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring and more NFL starts than any other cornerback in history, Ronde Barber has retired. - Jeffrey Beall via wikipedia
Jeffrey Beall via wikipedia
FUTURE HALL OF FAMER: After 16 years, five Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring and more NFL starts than any other cornerback in history, Ronde Barber has retired.

1997: The first year Tampa Bay traded the creamsicled Bucco Bruce in exchange for pewter pants. Bill Clinton began his second term, The Spice Girls movie and Home Alone 3 were raking in hundreds at the box office, “I’m Too Sexy” blared from my car stereo with the windows down to the confused horror of fellow motorists, and Nike realized there is such a thing as bad advertising when they discovered members of Heaven’s Gate sporting their footwear for the misguided suicidal trip to Haley’s Comet. Good times …

That same year, a rookie named Ronde Barber started only one game and had three tackles against the Arizona Cardinals. But the Bucs went to the playoffs for the first time since 1979, where they beat the Lions before losing to the Packers in the second round (who then lost to Elway and the Broncos in the Super Bowl … HA!). From that year forward, the playoffs went from a jaw-dropping surprise to a preseason expectation. After 16 years, five Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring, enough awards, records and accolades to give my sausage fingers a nasty case of carpal tunnel, and more NFL starts than any other cornerback in history, #20 has decided to trade in his cleats for orthopedics and retire.

The statistics are wonderful and the highlights are plentiful. But when the name Ronde Barber comes up, true Buccaneer fans far and wide flashback at breakneck speed to exactly where they were for the one play during the 2002 season that made full-grown men violently weep with joy. I was among the joyful weepers. And this is my story.

Jan. 19th, 2003. NFC Championship Game. Buccaneers visit the Eagles in the city of brotherly shove. Winner goes to Super Bowl XXXVII. Three minutes and 12 seconds left in the 4th quarter. Bucs are ahead 20-10, but quarterback Donovan McNabb and the Eagles are driving … fast. I’m hosting a watch party. TVs in every room, including the toilet (I didn’t mess around). No flat screens. We had tubes in those days. Back then, if moving your television didn’t result in lower back pain, your party sucked.

It was first and goal at the Tampa Bay 10. Nobody breathed. Every sphincter in the house was clenched so tight, if any of us farted, only the dogs would have heard it. Most of us had bounced from room to room during the drive, convinced the current momentum favoring the Eagles was clearly a result of one of our asses watching from the wrong spot. Then it happened: McNabb back to pass … Barber fakes a blitz … McNabb bites … he throws … Barber drops back in coverage, breaks on the pass rout and, THANK YOU, intercepts the ball and runs untouched 92 yards for the score. The only sound heard in Veterans Stadium was thousands of Cheez-Whiz-clogged hearts collectively breaking. The Philly pain was as delicious as the spontaneous celebratory screaming dog-pile of humanity that appeared on the floor of my living room. It was an eruption of euphoric tear-soaked cheers, hugs and hollering which signified an indescribably emotional purge of years upon years of the frustration of being a loyal citizen of Buc Nation.

“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” screeched Scotty in my eardrums. Scotty’s a buddy of mine who was a season ticket holder since Game One, Year One, and never gave up. Oh, he got close. We all did. But no taste of victory is sweeter than when it’s preceded by decades of eye-rolling, hair-pulling, liver-exhausting defeat. And that one play by Barber was, without question, the ultimate exclamation point.

Oddly enough, Barber wasn’t invited to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl that year. But as he arrived on the sidelines after the play that sealed the victory, he had a response for his critics that was captured by NFL Films.

“Pro Bowl, my ass! I’m going to San Diego!” (The site of Super Bowl XXXVII.)

Needless to say, the following week, the Buccaneers capped off the season with a 48-21 bitch-slapping of the Oakland Raiders to take home the franchise’s one and only Lombardi trophy. Over 10 years later, I have countless memories of every game from that fairy tale year. Cleveland players bouncing off Mike Alstott like pinballs, Derrick Brooks matching Michael Vick step for step, Brad Johnson throwing five TD passes with fractured ribs against his former Vikings team, and of course the loss to Philly in Week #7 when Eagles fans cheered after Warren Sapp got hurt. (You stay classy, Philadelphia.) But nothing compares to the play that catapulted the team into the final chapter of that historic championship season. Congratulations to the last remaining player on that roster to retire. And thank you. See you in Canton, Ronde.

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