For the last forty years, I’ve been asked why and how I’m a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, especially being from New Jersey. I usually say the first football game I went to as a kid was a Giants/Buccaneers game. But I think I was already a fan by the time I went to that game. Truth is, the Bucs caught my eye the minute they entered the NFL in 1976, an expansion team along with the Seattle Seahawks–another team I root for.
I was eight years old when the Buccaneers completed their inaugural season with zero wins and fourteen losses. It’s when I must have developed a thing for losers and underdogs—I’m also a Mets fan. In 1977, the Bucs kept me engaged by losing the first twelve games of their second season. With twenty-six losses in a row, my devotion to them was cemented.
The Buccaneers were so bad that after a loss when a reporter asked their head coach, John McKay, “what do you think of your team’s execution?” he replied “I’m in favor of it.” (Although the quote is widely attributed to him, he may have never ever said it.)
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, kids my age rooted for either the Cowboys, Steelers, or Raiders. These were manly teams. Brawny teams with brawny fans boldly wearing navy/silver, black/gold, or black/silver uniforms. In other words, teams that won. The Bucs neon creamsicle uniforms were anything but manly. Even their logo and mascot, a winking swashbuckler named Bucco Bruce, came across as, well, kinda gay. But to me, a deeply closeted preteen, the Bucs seemed exciting, shiny, and new. And I fell in love.
For the next twenty years, on every birthday and every Christmas, I filled my wish list with anything that had the Bucs logo on it. In no time, I had a collection of t-shirts, hats, caps, mugs, banners, pillows, and more. But being a Bucs fan came at a price. I was unmercifully teased, ridiculed, and tormented, sometimes even by complete strangers, for wearing Bucs gear. Still, my loyalty never wavered.
I even bled for the Buccaneers. With a the scar to prove it.
On most Sundays I hunkered down in my orange to watch the Giants or Jets. Before satellite TV, they were the only teams broadcast in the New York area. And while I rooted for the local teams, I actually anxiously waited for score updates and halftime highlights from other games. On a mid-November Sunday in the late 80s, the score update on the bottom of the screen showed the Bucs trailing the Vikings late in the fourth quarter by less than a field goal. During a commercial, I stepped away from the living room television for just a moment, but when I heard, “let’s send it to New York for an update on the Vikings-Buccaneers game,” I ran back as fast as I could. On the way, my leg caught the sharp metal edge of the oven door handle. It ripped through my jeans and my thigh. But I wasn’t deterred. I quickly got ice, wrapped the ice in a dish towel, and applied pressure. Then I hobbled back to the living room just in time to see the Bucs win on a last minute field goal.
After I came out in the early 90s, I thought wearing bright orange would be acceptable, at least in the gay community. I was wrong. Here’s an essay I wrote in 1995 about being a gay sports fan. (Note: I was a younger writer then and the essay has not been edited.)
I’m here, I’m queer, and I watch ESPN. Get used to it. And bring some pretzels before you sit down. I admit it—I’m a gay man who happens to be a sports fan. I have the caps, shirts, sweats, jackets, and pendants. I will not be ashamed anymore. As a kid I was outside all the time throwing a football, playing catch, or kicking a soccer ball. Even today, I’d much rather be outside rollerblading, hiking, or biking. But where are all the other gay sports fans? When I’ve tried to talk game to other gay men, I’ve been told, “Oh, you’ll get over it,” or “Are you trying to prove you’re butch or something?” or “What kind of fag are you?”
Last summer, coinciding with the Gay Pride events, my favorite hockey team, the New Jersey Devils, swept the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. That week I hung both a large rainbow flag and a red spray-painted bed sheet reading “Go Devils” side-by-side out my third floor window facing Seventh Avenue. Some passing by may have thought the flags were incompatible; others may have questioned if the Devils were a new gay organization; others may have just assumed a lesbian lived there.
Outside my apartment door, I hung newspaper clippings of the Devil’s victory.
“What are the neighbors going to think?” My roommate, who had taped Barbra Streisand and ACT UP posters on that same door weeks earlier, squawked. You see, he may worship the Funny Girl, but I worship the Devils.
This past September, on the first week of football season, I came across another gay man dressed like me, wearing a bright orange Buccaneers jersey. We were both rollerblading down by the waterfront.
“Hey, are you a Buccaneer fan?” I asked.
“No,” he snapped then noticed my head-to-toe orange getup, “but obviously you are!” He sneered and skated away.
Friends have started calling my boyfriend a football widow. Ask him, however, and he’ll tell you I’m not a one-dimensional sports lunatic. I have other “gay” interests: writing, theatre, and shopping (although I must stop by every sports store in the mall just to make sure they are stocking my teams’ paraphernalia). One Sunday night, I dragged him to New York City’s only self-proclaimed gay sports bar, Champs, to watch the Buccaneers play the Lions. To our surprise, the game was actually on, albeit on one screen sandwiched between several screens of posing bodybuilders. And instead of the broadcasting the game’s audio, the bar blasted bass-thumping, conversation-stifling dance music. While other men ogled each other, I ogled the game.
“Why aren’t the Bucs throwing the ball more?” I tried to engage the bartender. “Secondary coverage is the Lion’s weak spot.”
“Secondary coverage?” he grinned, “I thought the Lion’s weak spot was not having a brain.”
“That’s the Scarecrow,” my boyfriend responded, “the Lion needs courage.”
Which is exactly what I needed at that moment. So I closed my eyes, tapped my heels together, and repeated “there’s no place like home.” And that’s where I’ve spent my remaining Sundays. I need some kind of friendly outlet for this pent up energy. I want to yell at quarterbacks, coaches, and refs on the screen and be understood. I long for a gay sports Mecca that could be just as festive on Super Bowl Sunday as it is on Gay Pride Sunday. And straight sports bars are just that—straight.
The Gay Games proved that gay men are competitive athletes, but a void still seems to remain when it comes to following or watching professional team sports. Are there unwritten rules in the gay community that I don’t know about prohibiting enthusiasm for professional team sports? So for my fellow, silent, gay sports enthusiasts—those of us who live for instant replays, sports documentaries, sports trivia, grand slams, hail Mary’s, slam dunks, hat tricks, and venting about the baseball strike, we must be out and loud. Eventually we will find each other.
A couple of years later, the Buccaneers updated their uniforms. Red, black, and pewter were the new orange. They hired Tony Dungy as head coach and started winning in 1997, the same year I won when I met Danny, my future husband.
They missed the playoffs in ’98, but appeared the following four seasons, from 1999-2002. During that time, in 2000, an unexpected miracle entered our lives, and I became determined to make him a Bucs fan like his Papa.
My chest became his favorite place to rest and nap.
In 2003, the Buccaneers finally made it to and won the Super Bowl, something I doubted I would see in my lifetime. Underdogs going in, my team–the one with once the brightest uniforms and “gayest” logo in all of team sports, and the team I had stuck with and endured years of ridicule over–had manhandled the Oakland Raiders.
My son Kevin never took an interest in watching football. So despite my efforts, he never became a Bucs fan. (Although for a few months in his preteen years, he claimed to be a Steelers fan. That didn’t last.) When Kevin turned 13, he found my favorite Buccaneers t-shirt and tried it on. I flashbacked to the day I bought it at a Georgetown sports store in 1988. And to the day Kevin became our son and drooled all over on it. Maybe he remembered the scent. He said he loved the soft, worn-in feel, so he made it his.
He wore that shirt all the time for more than a year, until he grew out of it. I wished he hadn’t. I could never outgrow seeing him in it. I’ve since repossessed the shirt, a hand-me-down hand-me down.
The Bucs last playoff appearance was in 2007. But they had a decent chance this year. And with one game left in the regular season, they are still in the hunt. Barely. They need all kinds of miracles to make it. From Yahoo Sports:
The Bucs must beat the Carolina Panthers. That’s not wild, considering Cam Newton has struggled with his accuracy lately, the game is in Tampa and the Bucs already have beaten them once this season in Charlotte. But that’s the (sort of) easy part.
Then they’d need five teams to lose: the Packers, the Houston Texans, the Indianapolis Colts, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seattle Seahawks. Yes, amazingly, the Bucs are rooting against two AFC teams to win. (It comes down to strength of victory and other arcane tiebreakers.)
But then on top of that five-game parlay, the Bucs need the unlikeliest of unlikelihood: a tie between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.
Hey, anything is possible.
Update February 6th, 2021:
The Buccaneers play in their second Super Bowl tomorrow. While I’m thrilled, I also find myself apologetic having to root for Tom Brady. I know, I know, we’re all sick of seeing him play in (and win) so many Super Bowls, but this is my team, for better and for worse. And it’s been mostly worse for over four decades.
Last week, a diehard Jets fan told me they couldn’t root for the Bucs because of Brady. I asked my friend if Brady had signed with the Jets and taken them to the Super Bowl, would you root against the Jets? His response was swift: No. He’d take Brady and even Trump as the owner if that’s what it took. So haters are gonna hate until they love.
Here’s the thing: Yes, Tom Brady deserves much credit for leading the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl. But the team has been loaded with offensive weapons for a couple of years now. They just didn’t have a consistent and accurate quarterback. (Jameis Winston threw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions last year. That means receivers were getting open, but he made too many poor throwing decisions.)
This year the Bucs also have a solid defense, and that means more time on the field and and more opportunities for Brady and the offense to score. While it remains to be seen how the Bucs defense will perform against the Chiefs high-powered offense tomorrow, if they can give the Bucs offense more possessions, and if the team ends up winning, they will deserve as much credit as Brady will undoubtedly receive.