Lee Tramel understands that he and his fellow Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans have drunk deeply from the cup of sporting success the past year.
In an 11-month span when most things in life have flickered between varying shades of rotten, at least the professional sports teams that reside on the east and western shores of Tampa Bay have provided a respite. The successes have lined up in a rare form.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won a second Stanley Cup.
The Rays won the American League Pennant.
And with the unlikely arrival of 43-year-old, six-time champion quarterback Tom Brady – who signed with Tampa Bay within a week of the North American professional sports complex going fetal – the Buccaneers will on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium become the first team to play a home-game Super Bowl.
What more could a Tampa Bay fan want besides legal sports betting in Florida?
To actually see it happen.
Less-indulged American fan bases aren’t going to conjure much sympathy over this sort of predicament, but the Lightning raised the Stanley Cup in a practically fanless Rogers Place in Toronto to conclude the National Hockey League’s bubbled-up playoffs.
The Rays denied a first World Series title in Arlington, Texas – by the Dodgers, who gave Los Angeles two championships and the most over-served fan base of the year – as Major League Baseball held the playoffs in predetermined sites for COVID mitigation.
Again, no tears from anywhere else, but Bucs fans are unapologetic about the possibility of wondering if the karmic championship god owes them one. And even lamenting this chance a little.
“I feel like we’ve been cheated,” said Tramel, a long-time Bucs fan who was present for the Super Bowl win over Oakland in 2003. “It’s like they said, ‘We got one for Tampa down the line.” That doesn’t mean he’s taking this one less seriously.
“It’s like somebody is coming into my backyard, and I gotta win,” he told PlayUSA. “I gotta defend the house. It’s my house. If they want to fight me, I’ve got to win.”
Tampa Bay fans balance team love, money, COVID
Granted, some Tampa Bay area fans will get to watch in person on Sunday. Those who don’t make it will probably one day claim to have been there, but just 25,000 people will actually cross through gates, 7,500 of them vaccinated front-line health care workers from around the country.
Mike Miller, a former season ticket holder, is content to watch the game with his wife and celebrate via Zoom with the other 20-plus friends who normally come over for the Super Bowl.
Miller seems content with his lot.
“You can’t see it live, but you can see it on TV,” he said. “Well, you can see it live, but I checked and you have to pay about $15,000 for a ticket I don’t really want, in the end zone or the edges. If I could get a ticket for $10,000 in the middle of the field, I would buy it.”
But everyone else willing to cast COVID care to the wind has been lusting after tickets and plumbing their own, often fruitless means.
Walking toward the CBS Sports broadcast stage at Height Public Market on Wednesday, Tramel was holding out hope an old family connection would come through. Tramel’s family is entwined with Buccaneers lineage, as his uncle chauffeured original owner Hugh Culverhouse for 40 years after retiring from his post at MacDill Air Force Base. The Culverhouses, Tramel said, eventually paid for multiple members of his family to attend college, but his ticket to San Diego was secured years earlier with a bet at Tampa Yacht and Country Club.
Tramel, a maitre d’ at the club after finishing his tour of Vietnam, was debating the future of the then-horrific Buccaneers with member David Murphy, who asserted that he would send him and his wife to the Super Bowl each time made it. If they ever made it.
They did, and he did. Tramel believes that Murphy wrote the eternity clause into his will, but with Murphy now deceased, he was hoping but coming to the realization he might be watching the hometown game on television.
“If not, it’s OK, I got the one,” Tramel said, quickly pivoting back to the importance of a win after years of frustration. “It means everything to win with Tom Brady. It seems like destiny. Tom Brady came here. Haven’t been to a championship in years. He came to the Bucs and now he’s going to the Super Bowl.
“It seems like destiny, really.”
Added Miller: “We’re in three championship games. If we get two champions? Wow.”
Tampa Bay fans grabbing memories where they find them
Even as a concrete and chain-link perimeter pushed ever farther from Raymond James Stadium this week, Buccaneers fans were busy trying to claim a special piece of a special experience perverted by a pandemic. On Wednesday, an elderly couple, the woman leaning on a walker and holding red pom poms, posed for a picture with her husband in front of a logo-slathered fence with the stadium framed far in the background.
Season-ticket-holder Orlando Martinez, whose son, Joseph, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital won a ticket, said he’ll walk as close as possible on Sunday to witness the ceremonial flyover and absorb whatever vibe might elicit a chill.
“Just our luck, huh?” Martinez quipped. “But I have a different take on it after I really pondered over it, and under the circumstances, the silver lining is probably it’s a good thing. Number one, you’re going to have a lot of eyeballs on Tampa and number two, there’s probably a lot of people who wouldn’t travel and the locals to get the benefit of all the festivities … although they’ve been watered down quite a bit.”
Perhaps one day, if the Super Bowl schedule and the fortunes of the Bucs align again, they can all get a reprise, Tramel hopes.
“Maybe we can get another one down the line,” he said, “where everyone can go.”