The good folks of London didn't get a lot of NFL football on their televisions during the early '80s; they certainly didn't have annual NFL games played in their own backyard at Wembley Stadium, as they do now. Monday Night Football was an exception, and on that November night in 1982, a London native named Paul Stewart happened to be watching as the Buccaneers defeated the Dolphins, 23-17. He was bit by the NFL but and, in particular, he had a good feeling about these Buccaneers, who were well on their way to a third playoff appearance in four years.
A Buccaneer fan for life was born that night, and two years later that new obsession gave rise to "Bucs UK," now one of the largest and most impressive Buccaneer fan clubs in the world. Stewart has recently stepped back from daily involvement with the club after a labor of love spanning three decades (to understand the depth of Stewart's Buccaneer commitment, visit his web site, Bucpower.com, and spend a few hours exploring), but Bucs UK continues to grow, now boasting more than 250 members.
More than a dozen of those Bucs UK fans, led by longtime vice president and new man in charge Phil Jones, visited the Bay area this past weekend and took in the Bucs' 22-19 win over Miami on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium. For many of them, it was their first experience watching a game in an NFL stadium. And that wasn't the only thrill of the weekend: Earlier on Monday, the entire group was invited to One Buccaneer Place for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the team's one-of-a-kind facility. The tour was originally scheduled for last Friday, but the Bucs happily agreed to move it to Monday so that more of the visitors from London could experience it.
Jones has visited the Bay area on many occasions and is familiar with One Buccaneer Place, but most of the visitors were seeing it for the first time. They were shown around the entire building and given details by an experienced One Buc tour guide, visiting such areas as the locker room, the training room and the weight room. Jones remembers seeing the weight room during a previous visit and being amazed by the amount of weight some of the players were lifting.
"One of the things that is said to me in England about American football is that, because they were pads, they're small guys running around in pads," he said. "But until you get really close to [the players] you have no idea of the size of these people.
"[The facility] is absolutely state-of-the-art, it really is. You went from the old place to this and it really is beautiful. I brought somebody with me today who's been to a lot of these places and he was just completely bowled over because he didn't realize the size of this place."
One of Monday's Bucs UK visitors was Gordon Hill, a London transplant who has coached soccer all over Florida and has called Palm Harbor home for the last year. Jones is quite familiar with the world of professional sports, having played four years for the Manchester United as well as on England's national club. He played in an international match against Italy in Yankee Stadium and even once played in the old Tampa Stadium, against the Rowdies, but he was still amazed by One Buccaneer Place.
"I think it's just another world," said Hill, whose nickname during his playing days was "Merlin." "People don't understand and don't appreciate what goes into professional sports and professional athletes. It's great having a professional athlete at an elite level, but you have to have the facilities to back it up."
In addition to the general growing popularity of American football in the United Kingdom, the Buccaneers have a particularly large following in London. Jones attributes that to the fact that Florida is a chief holiday destination for Londoners. That Buccaneer fan base is even bigger than the thriving Bucs UK membership would suggest, and it means there is always potential for growth for his group.
"It's growing all the time," said Jones. "The American football is growing greatly in the UK. What I find fascinating is how many Buccaneer fans there are in London that we don't know about. It never ceases to amaze me, how many of them keep turning up. We keep finding them. Every single week we seem to find somebody from somewhere. Today, the people have come from all over the British Isles [to Tampa]."
Of course, the success of the Bucs UK fan club can also be directly attributed to the passion of, first, Paul Stewart and, now, Jones himself.
"Phil Jones is the leader," said the garrulous Hill. "He's so infectious. He's like a disease – once he touches you it spreads. He's so dedicated at what he does – his time, his effort and his passion – and it shows. I've seen it being a pro athlete and looking from the outside into the supporter side of it, it's absolutely brilliant to see that he's spreading the word, and he's done it for so many years. [The Bucs] have got a great ambassador in England, and it's lovely to watch.
The proud and thriving Bucs UK fan club started with an "advert" that Stewart placed in a London newspaper in 1984, and it grew slowly but steadily to about 20 members over the next five years. Since then, it has taken off and has shown no signs of slowing down; Jones says his group is planning another major membership push at the beginning of next year. The passion of these fans is evident in person, and the Buccaneers were only too happy to open their doors to their friends from across the pond on Monday.
Then, in the evening, the Buccaneers treated that group, and about 65,000 other fans to another Monday Night Football win over Miami, just like the one 31 years ago that proved to be the germination of something big. Who knows what Monday night's win will launch, but with the dedication of the folks in the Bucs UK fan club, it could be anything.