Head Coach Jon Gruden exchanges prized gifts with U.S. Marine and die-hard Buc fan Manny Herrera
Manny Herrera, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, was four when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into being. Born and raised in Tampa, he became a die-hard Buccaneer fan and, like many others in the Bay area, dreamed of one day seeing his team raise the Lombardi Trophy in triumph.
On January 24 of this year, Herrera landed in Iraq with the Marines' Charlie Company, first-tank battalion. Two days later, halfway around the world, Herrera's Bucs grabbed that trophy after winning Super Bowl XXXVII, the first NFL championship in franchise history. The Super Bowl may be the most-watched single sporting event in the world, but in Herrera's isolated corner of the globe on that day, news traveled slowly.
"The army has established bases out there," said the 31-year-old Marine of where he found himself upon arriving in Iraq. "They have been there for quite some time. We just showed up in the middle of the desert, so we were sending vehicles to go find out who won the Super Bowl."
The news, of course, thrilled the Tampa native. Days later, he received a package from home, containing a large, black Buccaneer flag. The next morning, that flag went on Herrera's tank.
It would stay there throughout the war.
Given the intense media coverage of the war in Iraq, it didn't take long for images of Herrera's tank rumbling through the desert, its Buc flag flying triumphantly, to reach the states, and particularly the Bay area. The Buccaneers, who play just a few miles from MacDill Air Force Base, the operational hub for Operation Iraqi Freedom, were thrilled to be thought of as a source of support for Herrera and his fellow soldiers.
On Saturday, Herrera was a distinguished guest at the Buccaneers' last practice before its trip to St. Louis. Accompanied by his wife, Andrea, his two children Nicholas and Kylie, his brother Orlando and his cousin Danny, Herrera witnessed the team's two-hour workout before making a special presentation to Head Coach Jon Gruden at the end of practice. Herrera's gift to his favorite team: that very flag that flew on his tank in Iraq.
That symbol that was so important to Herrera and his family while he was overseas will now be proudly displayed at the Buccaneers' headquarters.
"They hit some adversity over there, and when his mom saw that flag on the tank, she recognized it and realized that her son was okay," said Gruden. "He gave that to us as a token of his love and appreciation for Tampa Bay Buccaneer football, and it meant a lot to us. We'll put that up in our facility here. We can use something like that as inspiration around here."
Herrera, whose military service has spanned nearly 15 years, was due to ship out to Kentucky on Sunday morning, with California his eventual destination. He plans to end up at Fort Knox as an instructor for other Marine Corps officers. The Tampa Catholic grad had only been back in town since July 24, exactly six months after he first arrived in Iraq. But before he left Tampa again, Herrera got closer to his favorite team than he had ever imagined he would.
"It's a dream come true," said the patriot of his visit to the Bucs' practice. "I've been watching the Buccaneers my entire life, and this is the closest I've ever been to them.
"It looks like they have so much fun out there as opposed to some people that seem to make it all business. These guys just actually enjoy what they do. I like to watch (Warren) Sapp. Even on the sidelines, he's all into the game. It's fun to watch them play."
The Bucs, of course, were equally impressed by their special visitor, and pleased that he had escaped the conflict unscathed. It was, safe to say, a good year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' flag.
"It's a tradition for us to put up flags," said Herrera. "Everybody has got a flag up. My (commanding officer) has a Tennessee flag on his tank, and my best friend has one. I just wanted a Buccaneer flag."