Buccaneers Owner/President Malcolm Glazer was thrilled at the passionate support displayed at FanFest
The Bank of America FanFest could just as easily have been called BucFest. Everything relating to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to come together in one spot – Raymond James Stadium – on Saturday for one of the most rewarding fan gatherings in recent memory.
There was something for every fan at the Bank of America FanFest, which explains why it drew an estimated crowd of 20,000 to Raymond James Stadium. Buccaneers Owner/President Malcolm Glazer, who spent more than five hours signing autographs and chatting with fans, was thrilled with the passionate nature of the crowd.
"It's great to see all of these fans together," said Glazer. "Everyone's so excited for the new year. When I look here and I see a sea of red, and I see all of these enthusiastic fans, I know that we've got the best fans in the world right here in Tampa. We have high hopes for a great season. We have all the talent there and we're just waiting for the season to start so we can use it."
Glazer, seated next to Head Coach Tony Dungy for most of the event, heard fan after fan offer encouragement and/or predictions. One fan who claimed not to have missed a single game, preseason, regular season or postseason, since 1979 thanked Glazer and shook his head in disbelief that the Buccaneers had been transformed into 'the best franchise in the NFL.' Another father and son tandem pulled back their Buc jerseys to reveal Minnesota Vikings jerseys underneath, but claimed they would be Vikings fans 'no more'.
Glazer met the fans while seated in the 'Pewter' tent along with Dungy and a few dozen players. Across the field, the 'Red' tent held another portion of the Buccaneers roster. Each featured a long line of Buc fans eager to get their favorite items autographed.
Elsewhere, on the main concourse of the stadium, 12 individual stations held two shifts of prominent Buccaneers who signed limited-edition autograph cards. Fans purchased the cards for $5 each, with all proceeds going to four charities chosen by the participating players: Brooks' Bunch, Lynch's All-Stars, Jerry's Journey and the United Way.
Other areas of the event featured different ways for fans to get involved, from touring the Pirate Ship and taking a picture courtesy of Bank of America to playing interactive games on the field. Fans also had an opportunity to meet the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders and pose for a picture with them; a few cheerleaders even consented to sit in the dunk tank!
The highlights of the day for many fans in attendance, however, were the question-and-answer sessions with Dungy and his coaching staff. Dungy took the stage at approximately noon to field fan inquiries and introduce his offensive staff for further questioning. Later, the process was repeated with the defensive coaches. During the sessions, fans gathered around the stage in the South End Zone and grabbed the microphone to say their piece.
Among the questions answered by Dungy were...
...will the Bucs feel the loss of LB Hardy Nickerson?
Dungy: "Every year, you just try to do things that are going to make your team better. In this system, you're going to lose some guys and you're going to gain some guys. We just feel like gaining Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, Keyshawn Johnson, some of our draft choices is going to make us a better club. We've got some guys that have to step up and play more of a role than they did last year, but we're excited about the roster we have and we think we can compete for a Super Bowl."
...are the Bucs interested in recently-released kick returner Brian Mitchell?
Dungy: "We're going to look at everybody that comes across the wire. Brian Mitchell is a great player with a lot of competitiveness. Obviously, right here he took one up this sideline 101 yards against us, which we don't like to see. But we think we've got some great returners. Our focus, talking to (Special Teams Coach) Joe Marciano is to find one guy for punt returns and one guy for kickoff returns. We've got a lot of candidates. I think Yo Murphy is going to be able to do a great job. Jacquez Green has done it well in the past...Reidel Anthony. Karl Williams is on top of the leader board in terms of NFL history, so we have some guys that can do it and I think we're satisfied with our return game."
...what is the status of tackle Paul Gruber, who is recovering from a broken leg?
Dungy: "Paul Gruber is really pretty determined to play next year. In talking to him, he feels that he's about six weeks behind where he normally is at this time of the year. He's working extra hard to try to get back. We're hoping that he'll be back for the first practice (of training camp). If not, we're ready to build in some time to let him kind of grow into it. I think he's planning on playing, but his health is going to be the key factor."
Dungy fielded a variety of other questions but eventually turned the microphone over to Les Steckel, the team's new offensive coordinator and a focal point for Buccaneer fan issues. Steckel told the crowd that he could sense the excitement in the town despite his short stay in Tampa. He then went on to answer such questions as...
...how the players are responding to his system?
Steckel: "Well, we've got a long way to go, but I can't say enough about the quality of the players here. Coach Dungy and the personnel department have done a fine job. Character-wise, I've been on about six or seven teams now, and this is the best. When you have a relationship like our coaches do with the players, I think we're going to have tremendous success."
...does he perceive any weaknesses in the personnel yet?
Steckel: "To evaluate football players, you have to have shoulder pads and helmets on. Right now we're just in t-shirts and shorts, and helmets, of course. But the effort and the discipline that I'm seeing from our players on both sides of the ball is really encouraging as a coach."
...what does it take to reach the Super Bowl?
Steckel: "As Coach Dungy mentioned, I've been fortunate enough to be with two teams (that have made the Super Bowl) and we've found that the best way to get there is to just take them one (game) at a time. I know you hear that a lot, but because of all the things that are coming at our players and coaches, there are a lot of distractions. Right now, we're focused on the training camp, then preseason, then playing the Patriots in Foxboro. That's the focus right now."