Paul Gruber remembers standing on the grass field of Tampa Stadium, late in December of 1997, as the noise of 73,000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans thundered through the old building one final time. Gruber's team had just defeated the Detroit Lions in the Buccaneers' first playoff appearance in 15 years, and it would be the last game ever played in the stadium. To this day, it is one of his fondest memories as an NFL football player.
On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the sparkling new home he helped the Buccaneers open nine months after that Tampa Stadium sendoff, Gruber heard the cheers and the chants once again. Many of them came in the second half, as the 2012 version of the Buccaneers turned a tight 7-3 game into a 38-10 demolition of the Kansas City Chiefs. Some of the loudest, however, were reserved for halftime.
In a halftime ceremony attended by several dozen alumni from that '97 Buccaneers team, Gruber became the fourth person inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. After a video chronicling his career and a moving introduction from Gene Deckerhoff of the Buccaneers Radio Network, Gruber watched as his name and number were uncovered on the stadium façade. The Buccaneers' Ring of Honor now reads: "63 SELMON McKAY 88 GILES 74 GRUBER."
Gruber gave a brief (of course) but heartfelt speech, thanking his former teammates, the Glazer family and his own wife and children. He ended by expressing his appreciation for the Buccaneer faithful, knowing some of those in the crowd on Sunday were also on hand for that 1997 playoff game against Detroit.
"I've always believed Tampa has the best fans in the NFL," said Gruber. "Through thick and thin, Buccaneer fans stay true. Thank you for your loyalty and support. It was an honor to play for you."
The long-time left tackle stalwart was greeted with chants of "Groooooob" as he stepped to the podium on the field, with the '97 alumni fanned out behind him. After he finished his speech, he turned to shake the hands of his former teammates and was instead mobbed by those who had shared a locker room with him and benefited from his quiet but unwavering leadership.
His '97 teammates, from Mike Alstott to Shelton Quarles, understood the immensity of the honor that had been bestowed upon Gruber. The late Lee Roy Selmon is the team's lone Hall of Famer (so far) and was universally beloved in the Bay area. John McKay, the founding head coach with the wry wit and the precocious playoff teams, followed Selmon into the Ring. Last year, Jimmie Giles joined them, a tribute to the franchise's first breakout offensive star. And now Gruber follows, serving as the bridge from one era to the next, and reminding fans and former teammates of what it took to turn around a floundering franchise.
Gruber's name is now on display for every fan who enters the Buccaneers' gameday home, for generations to come. The unbending lineman who protected the blind sides of Tampa Bay quarterbacks for 12 years, virtually never missing an offensive snap, will be remembered alongside the most elite of Buccaneer greats. At halftime, as the cheers rang out at Raymond James Stadium and the long Midwestern vowel of his last name was drawn out in admiration, Gruber's thoughts turned to all those who had helped him get to that moment.
"This is such a special day for me and my family," he said. "It's a tremendous honor to join Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay and Jimmie Giles in the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor. I'm deeply humbled, and I couldn't have done it alone. I have been blessed by the help of so many along the way."