Getting Ryan Nece to sign your Ryan Nece jersey - one of the great opportunities at FanFest
In search of a little shade, a young lady wearing a Cadillac Williams jersey pushes a stroller underneath the edge of a tent. In the top of the stroller is a sleeping baby; in the bottom, filling the basket to the point of overflowing, is a collection of Tampa Bay Buccaneers items soon to be autographed.
This is, perhaps, the perfect FanFest image. It speaks of family, passion for the team and opportunities to meet the players, up close and personal.
Or is it this one? Strolling by the tent at that same moment is a fan who calls himself "Bone Shaker." He has supported that self-assigned title with an elaborate get-up that includes red and white face paint, a helmet with a bone on the top and a thick knot of pirate-themed necklaces. Bone Shaker's destination isn't the autograph tables; he's headed to the stage on the field at Raymond James Stadium, looking for a spot right up front for the Coaches' Corner at 12:15.
Or maybe this is FanFest, summed up: A young boy, maybe 12, wearing a Joey Galloway jersey and holding a football that, a moment ago, he was throwing with friends. At this moment, he is standing still, staring with his mouth open at the BucVision videoboards as they play the team's 2006 highlight film. On the screen, Ronde Barber is returning another interception for a touchdown against Philadelphia.
The Buccaneers' 2007 FanFest, presented by Bright House Networks, rumbled through Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, grander than ever. The playing field was packed from end zone to end zone, the autograph line in the main concourse snaked back and forth endlessly and the separate autograph tables in the air-conditioned club lounges accommodated every voucher-bearing customer. Team officials confirmed that, in terms of attendance, the 2007 FanFest was the team's biggest ever.
It was also a huge success, at least from one veteran fan's perspective.
"I come up to FanFest every year, and it never gets old," said Mark Franklin, a passionate Buc rooter from Sarasota. "I like to see the new players; it gets me excited for the season. I've been a Buc fan forever, and this event has just gotten better and better. It's fun – the games on the field, the cheerleaders, the autographs. There's a lot to do."
Franklin had just exited the line that led to a table featuring Bucs Jermaine Phillips, Ryan Nece, Dan Buenning and Kevin Carter, as well as team alumnus David Lewis. Other tables in four club lounge locations during two separate autograph sessions featured such players as Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks, Cadillac Williams, Jeff Garcia, Luke Petitgout, Gaines Adams and Michael Clayton. In the West Main Concourse, a much longer table was headed by General Manager Bruce Allen and Head Coach Jon Gruden. Over two sessions, virtually every player on the roster sat at one of these locations for two hours of signing and picture-taking.
"It was cool," said Franklin of meeting Carter, a 2007 free agent acquisition, for the first time. "He's a big dude. I think he can help us. I told him we have to get our defense back to where it was, and he agreed."
Carter, who spent his first 12 NFL seasons in St. Louis, Tennessee and Miami, enjoyed his first Buccaneer FanFest. As personable as he is big, Carter has been very accommodating in autograph situations throughout his career, and he's had good experiences in Tampa before.
"It's nice to meet some of the fans," said the veteran pass-rusher. "I'm new here and a lot of them don't know me very well, so it's nice to get acquainted. They were very friendly. The fans here have always been great, even when I've come in and played for another team. This is a football state – I'm from Tallahassee and I played over in Gainesville and down in Miami, so I know."
Carter wasn't surprised at the massive turnout for FanFest, as he had begun to feel the area's enthusiasm for the team since signing in early March.
"These people are ready for football around here, definitely," he said with a smile. "You can tell it's one of the biggest things in town. People are really into it. And everyone seems to think we're going to do well. We think so, of course, but we're a little biased. Our fans are definitely expecting a good season, and that's great."
That was obvious, too, when the entire coaching staff assembled on that end zone stage to meet the fans during the Coaches' Corner. Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, a fan favorite as much for his fevered speechmaking as for his incredible results, succeeded in pumping up the crowd midway through the event. He declared Bucs fans the greatest in the world and recounted the story of flying over a packed Raymond James Stadium on the night the team returned from its Super Bowl victory in January, 2003.
"That's why you coach and that's why the players play, to get back to the moment again," said Kiffin. "To take that ring, and that's what we're going to do now. But it's easy for me to talk about it and hard to do.
"We fell off on defense last year. That wasn't up to Buc standards. We've got to play better defense. We need some turnovers on defense and we need field position. We've got to do it on defense. To do that, we've got to coach better and play better, veterans, new players and everybody. We've got to play hard, we've got to play fast and we've got to play together."
Head Coach Jon Gruden addressed the crowd, too, and though his speech was shorter and less animated than Kiffin's, it was nonetheless what the crowd wanted to hear.
"I want you to know two things," Gruden told the red and pewter-clad throng. "We're mad as hell about where we are right now, and we're going to do something about it in '07."
Gruden headed back to the autograph table in the Main Concourse after the Coaches' Corner interlude, joining such new players for the afternoon session as Arron Sears, Quincy Black, Tanard Jackson and Adam Hayward. The area was still packed, the line moving efficiently.
"Our turnout is unbelievable," said Gruden. "I'm really happy that our players, our new players particularly, get a chance to see the passion that these fans have. I think our fans are excited to see Gaines Adams and Kevin Carter and some of the big guys that we brought in here, and so am I."
Hayward was certainly impressed. The rookie out of Portland State, a sixth-round draft choice, didn't have a feel for the size of the event until the team bus pulled up to the stadium past a packed parking lot.
"To tell you the truth, it's kind of crazy just to see all these people out here showing their support to everybody," said the upbeat rookie. "As for the autographs, it's really cool. I appreciate these fans – you can see their diehard fans and they really love their team."
Hayward was even more impressed that most of the fans passing by his seat at the table already knew who he was.
"The weirdest thing is that people have Portland State stuff, helmets and pictures," he said. "I started laughing when I saw that. These people really did their research. That's cool."
To the right of the long table at which Hayward and Gruden sat was the Lombardi Trophy, on display for fans to take pictures with. That, too, attracted a healthy line. Across the concourse were concession stands selling food and drink at discounted prices. On the field, Buccaneer Pewter Partners set up displays with games and giveaway items and kids stood on line to kick field goals, catch punts and long passes and run through a football obstacle course. The 2007 Buccaneers Cheerleaders made their performing debut on the stage just before Coaches' Corner and also spent the day signing autographs in a tent in the opposite end zone.
Surprisingly enjoyable weather in the morning helped build the crowd to its record depth, but the fans stayed even as the heat and humidity climbed around noon. Whether the goal was to take the kids to meet their favorite players, to play a game of catch on the same field on which the Bucs play or simply soak up the atmosphere among fellow Tampa Bay fans, there was something for everybody at the 2007 FanFest. Jersey-wearing moms with strollers, grown men in crazy costumes and kids holding footballs and dreaming of being the next Ronde Barber – that's what FanFest is all about.
And for Mark Franklin of Sarasota, it was about that Kevin Carter autograph.
"I'm putting this one up near my signed Simeon [Rice] picture," said Franklin. "I think those guys could do a lot of damage together this year."