Over the course of Saturday morning and afternoon, an estimated 32,000 fans visited Raymond James Stadium for the Bucs' 2006 FanFest
Eric Cullison pulled up at Raymond James Stadium at 2:45 a.m. on Saturday.
And, yeah, in case you were wondering, he was the first one there. In fact, Cullison originally parked in the employee lot on the east side of the stadium, for lack of another option, and spent several hours dozing there before he even had the opportunity to stand in line.
An estimated 32,000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans eventually joined Cullison at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday for the team's annual FanFest, an intensely popular event that attracted its biggest crowd in years. Of course, most of those 32,000 showed up well after Cullison – and the sunrise – had found the stadium's eastern parking lot. With virtually the entire roster of Buccaneers players and coaches on hand, as well as an endless array of games, giveaways and other attractions on the stadium turf, there was no need to rise at the crack of dawn to enjoy FanFest.
Cullison wasn't taking any chances, though. A long-time Bucs fan who had never taken advantage of FanFest before, he had a plan to maximize his autograph opportunities. Target number one: Alex Smith, the breakout rookie tight end from 2005.
"I got my ticket and just buzzed in here," said Cullison, explaining how he managed to be standing first in line for the table that would feature Smith, guard Sean Mahan, tight end Dave Moore and safety Jermaine Phillips. "I've got to get the new guys autographs, because they're amazing. And this table – Alex Smith, Sean Mahan, Jermaine Phillips and Dave Moore – Dave's not a new guy, but he's played 14 years in the league. These are just awesome players."
That group was one of eight that were featured at specific stations inside the stadium's air-conditioned club lounges during two different two-hour shifts. Fans in search of such players as Smith, Derrick Brooks, Davin Joseph or Chris Simms first visited the stadium ticket windows for specific vouchers – that was the line for which Cullison made his early arrival – then wound through fast-moving lines to come face-to-face with their favorite Bucs.
Smith wasn't the only newcomer who drew a sizeable amount of ticket-window attention. The shift that included Smith's fellow 2005 draftee, running back Cadillac Williams, proved to be the hottest ticket among the vouchers, as fans lined up for the opportunity to meet the NFL's reigning Rookie of the Year.
Of course, Williams has been a marquee attraction since the moment his name was called on draft day a year ago. Smith, a third-round pick who proved to be the one of the league's greatest draft-weekend steals with his stellar rookie season, found himself in greater demand at his second Buccaneer FanFest.
"This was a little different the second time around," said Smith, who had 41 receptions in his first season and also proved to be a much more adept blocker than many scouts predicted. "The first time, nobody had really seen me or known anything about me. Now everybody's had a chance to see me play for a year, and I think I've picked up a few fans along the way."
Count Lewis Hicks of St. Petersburg (and, originally, Minnesota) among the recent converts. He was just a few spots behind Cullison in Smith's line, armed with a digital camera and accompanied by Heather Marks and young Ariel Southworth. Though it bent the rules of the event a little bit – who's counting? – Hicks got Smith to pose for a variety of pictures with him and his family.
"I think he's going to be one of the best players in the league," said Hicks. "To me, he shows a lot of heart. I loved the opportunity to meet him and take some pictures."
That approach was shared by Tammy Spicer of Hudson. She and Susan Estevez, attending their sixth FanFest, arrived at the stadium at 8:30 a.m. – "Not as early as some people," Spicer noted dryly – and picked up vouchers for Smith's line, as well. Spicer kept her shutter clicking as she walked through the line.
"We come every year and take photos of the players," she said. "We've got a collection. We love FanFest. We like getting the autographs and going on the ship.
Spicer and Estevez got a bonus, too, as they moved past the front table. In addition to an autograph from Jermaine Phillips, the Bucs' hard-hitting safety, they got a scribbled John Hancock from Jordan Phillips, Jermaine's young son. Jordan, decked out in a number #23 jersey to support his dad, as well as a collection of red and black beads around his neck, offered his own autograph to anyone who would take it. The younger Phillips kept it up gamely for 45 minutes before switching to a regimen of playing with his beads and enthusiastically running through a series of exercises suggested by dad.
Spicer held up the card with Jordan's big, looping autograph as she exited the East Club Lounge, noting that he could eventually follow in his father's NFL footsteps.
"This could come in handy down the road," she joked.
Outside the Club Lounge and down the stadium stars was a playing field absolutely packed with fans, and framed by a beautiful, clear Tampa sky. In one end zone was a tent with Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders signing autographs, and in the other was a separate tent ready to house the popular "Coaches' Corner" segment of the afternoon. In between, along both sidelines, was a huge collection of games and attractions sponsored by various Buccaneer Pewter Partners.
The south end zone also served as a parking lot for a fleet of gleaming new Dodge and Jeep vehicles, from a well-muscled red Charger to a mean-looking black Ram 1500 Night Runner, both with Hemis under their hoods. One could check out these attractive rides, then head down the sideline for a free can of Vault or a chance to kick a field goal, among other options.
Along the main concourse on the west side of the stadium, a separate table was set up to provide another excellent autograph opportunity for the thousands of fans in attendance. In the morning, Head Coach Jon Gruden, General Manager Bruce Allen and Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon sat at the head of the table, followed by about 25 current players. No vouchers were needed for this table, and it was a widely-varied jackpot of autograph opportunities; one might find quarterback Luke McCown next to defensive tackle Lynn McGruder next to guard Toniu Fonoti. Or Tampa native wide receiver J.R. Russell flanked by wide receiver Edell Shepherd and quarterback Tim Rattay.
Near noon and the end of the first two-hour autograph session, Gruden and Allen left this table in favor of the field, where Coaches Corner was set to begin. Gruden arrived at the south end zone tent to find a throng of delirious Buc fans already lined up dozens deep along the ropes.
The first treat for these thousands of fans was the debut performance of the 2006 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, resplendent in their brand new red and black uniforms. Even confined to a tight spot, the 28-member squad danced a precision routine and reminded fans and coaches alike of one of the best reasons to attend games in person on fall Sundays.
The Bucs' reconfigured coaching staff was introduced next, though the loudest applause was reserved for holdovers Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin. Kiffin, the architect of the Bucs' once-in-a-generation defense, took the microphone first and delivered his typically energetic speech. Greeted and sent off by chants of "Monte! Monte!" Kiffin claimed that this year's FanFest crowd was the biggest he had seen since arriving in Tampa in 1996.
"I know some of you have birthdays and anniversaries coming up," said Kiffin, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as if they were a group of defensive linemen, "but the most important date of the year is September 10, 2006, when the Baltimore Ravens come to town!"
Kiffin also scoffed at the notion that the Bucs' defense, ranked number one in 2006, was getting too old. Gruden, who followed Kiffin to the microphone, liked what he was hearing, from the crowd and from his defensive guru.
"You think Monte Kiffin is afraid of Reggie Bush?" Gruden asked the crowd. "Do you think this defense is afraid of Reggie Bush?
"Do you guys love football here or not? I'll tell you this, we have a very good football team. We've got a great coaching staff. As long as I don't screw it up, we're going to be a handful this year."
The crowd roared, and pressed against the ropes in hopes of getting Gruden's autograph as he left the tent. Others continued to work their way through lines in the Club Lounges and the Main Concourse, as the afternoon autograph session continued unabated. Cadillac was in one corner, Simms in another, Michael Clayton in another. Those players who had worked the tables during the morning session relaxed and stretched out their cramped hands.
Moore, who has appeared at many, many FanFests – including some in the 1990s that featured one big tent in the middle of the sweltering field – still finds the event rewarding. While young players like Smith are still getting to know their new supporters, Moore has an easy familiarity with the fans in line, joking and exchanging pleasantries throughout the session. A good number of the fans seemed to know Moore personally, asking after his wife and children.
"A lot of these people come to these things every year," he said. "This thing used to be down on the field with the tents and stuff, so fortunately for us, they moved us up into the club. I think it's good. Anything you can do with the fans and for the fans is good, because they're obviously the reason you're playing. It gives us a chance to meet with them, get our few minutes of time. They get a chance to see what we look like without all our equipment on, get an idea of what kind of people we are."
Eric Cullison isn't yet one of those repeat visitors, but from the sound of things, he'll be marking this event on his calendar again next summer.
"This is my first FanFest, but I've been a Bucs fan since I was in the seventh grade and I finally had to make it down here for one of these," said Cullison. "And I'm glad I did – it's amazing. This is just great, everything going on and all the Bucs' players here. Just amazing."