Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fired Up

The Official Season Kickoff Party presented by Miller Lite drew thousands of fans to Channelside on Friday night and left both players and fans revved up for the start of the season

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The Bucs spent Friday night with their

A patch of red sky hung just off to the west of the Channelside District in downtown Tampa on Friday night, promising – as every sailor knows – a good day at sunup.

Another big blob of red filled the Channelside courtyard; while the one in the sky faded, this one grew as the night wore on. It too promised something good: The new NFL season is dawning, and the league's greatest fans are more than ready.

The Channelside Courtyard was the site of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Official Season Kickoff Party presented by Miller Lite on Friday night. Attended by thousands of Buccaneer fans, many of them sporting red jerseys, the Kickoff Party proved once again how deep and passionate the Buccaneers' fan base is.

The party kicked off at 7:00 p.m., with Head Coach Jon Gruden and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin addressing the crowd from a stage assembled in the middle of the courtyard. It continued for hours as several groups of Buccaneer players took the stage, interspersed with performances by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders and capped by a concert from national recording artist Edwin McCain.

Throughout the evening, the sea of red-clad fans hung on every word from the players on the stage and responded lustily to every call for a cheer. The Buccaneers may not have needed any more reason to get excited for Sunday's opener against the Baltimore Ravens, but they got one anyway.

"It's extremely impressive, but it doesn't surprise me," said Simms. "This is the way these fans always are. I've always been impressed by that. But for a Friday night to be like this, that's pretty exciting."

Simms took the stage along with wide receiver Joey Galloway and fellow quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, a rookie. Each took turns with the microphone, cracking jokes on each other and expressing their appreciation to the crowd. Simms even served as the interview when it was time for Galloway to answer a few questions, to predictable results. When the quarterback asked the receiver what the fans could expect from him this year, Galloway made a non-too-subtle pitch for the rock.

"I will be open," he said. "So throw me the ball. My favorite route? Touchdowns. Whatever gets us in the end zone."

Simms and Galloway are two of the primary reasons that Buccaneer fans are excited for the 2006 season. The two hooked up for six touchdown passes in little over half a season in 2005 and expect to build on that connection this fall. Friday night's party, one of those special events in which fans and players are able to mingle closely, allowed fans to witness the easy rapport between Galloway and Simms.

And Gradkowski is one of the reasons Buccaneer fans are excited about the future, having just completed an extremely impressive preseason. Of course, the rookie from Toledo knows he's handing the reins back to Simms know that the regular season has arrived.

"Come Sunday," he told the crowd, "I'll be on the sideline drinking Gatorade and cheering on my two buddies, just like you."

The players' path from the stage to a holding area in nearby nightspot Splitsville was a roped off walkway only a few feet wide. Fans crowded the ropes on both sides, and the players signed agreeably signed hundreds of autographs on their way to and from the stage. Gradkowski took a long time to complete the route as he tried to get to every autograph and picture request.

He was smiling as he came out of the "tunnel."

"I think this is really neat, especially my first time being around it," said Gradkowski. "Just seeing the energy that the crowd brings is exciting. That's so much fun come Sundays, when you have a crowd like this behind you. I'm looking forward to getting out there Sunday and seeing what the fans are like on a [regular season] game day."

The first group of players to take the stage was the defensive foursome of Ryan Nece, Jermaine Phillips, Dewayne White and Barrett Ruud. Nece, a team captain, spoke to the crowd first and shared his appreciation for their support.

"We're really excited for Sunday," said the fifth-year linebacker. "We know our fans will be there rooting us on. We can't wait to see you other there."

Phillips led several chants for the crowd, then made it clear what the team's intentions were for the 2006 season.

"We have the best fans in the NFL," he said. "When we win a championship, y'all win a championship. It's for you. We're looking at a great year. Our final destination is Miami."

Ruud admitted to the crowd that, given his Midwestern roots, he still wasn't used to the Bay area's oppressive summer heat. He said the support of the crowd on game day is what drives him to fight through the discomfort.

"We know these games can be tough, even for the fans," Ruud said later. "It's blazing out there, but they still come out and support us so well. It's an awesome environment to play in. It definitely makes football a lot more fun when you've got fans like that.

"This is cool. It's kind of like a high school or college atmosphere, which is always fun. I live real close to here so it was easy to make it over, and I'm glad I did. This was definitely cool."

Michael Clayton and Cadillac Williams, two of the featured guests at the inaugural Kickoff Party last season, returned this Friday to once again work the crowd into a frenzy. They succeeded. The third-year receiver, who works the stage like a veteran pitchman, echoed the thoughts of many of his teammates regarding the fans' support.

"This Sunday, we'll have 11 on offense," he said. "We'll have 11 on defense. But our 12th player, our most important player, will be the fans. We're going to need you guys this Sunday to kick off one of the most memorable seasons the Bucs have ever had."

Clayton and Williams left the stage a little before 9:00 p.m. Shortly after, McCain kicked off his rousing set, and the party continued into the night. Players and fans, having spent the last few hours firing each other up for the big day on Sunday, went their separate ways. The effects of the Kickoff Party will linger, however.

"This definitely gets us pumped up," said Simms. "Some people may not believe this, but events like this really do get the players just as excited as they get the fans. This gets us ready to go."

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