Fans packed the Channelside District Courtyard for the Official Kickoff Party on a beautiful night in downtown Tampa
The party started Thursday afternoon in Detroit, Michigan and Foxboro, Massachusetts. It continued Friday night in Tampa, Florida.
In both cases, the reason for festivities was the same: The return of NFL football.
While Thursday's bash in Foxboro, featuring Green Day, Santana, Maroon 5 and Kanye West, kicked off the 2005 NFL season as a whole, Friday night's party was more specific. Those who gathered for the Official Kickoff Party Presented by Miller Lite were celebrating the beginning of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' highly-anticipated 30th campaign.
And what a celebration it was!
Just two days before the team was set to open its season in Minnesota, and a little over 12 hours before its flight to Minneapolis, the Kickoff Party drew dozens of coaches and players and thousands of Buccaneer fans to the popular Channelside District Courtyard in downtown Tampa. Even with half the crowd dressed for a night on the town – many planning to build that night around the Sister Hazel concert that capped the Kickoff Party – the Courtyard was still a sea of red and pewter.
Approximately 8,000 Buccaneer fans gathered for the party, which began at 6:00 p.m. and led into Sister Hazel's performance at 9:00 p.m. They came to express their support for the team, commune with fellow Buccaneer loyalists and hear from such high-profile team representatives as General Manager Bruce Allen, Head Coach Jon Gruden and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. The entertainment provided by Sister Hazel and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders was a welcome bonus.
The fans cheered as players such as Brian Griese, Michael Clayton, Cadillac Williams, Shelton Quarles, Jermaine Phillips and Ryan Nece addressed the crowd from the center stage, then scrambled to grab autographs from their favorite Bucs.
Clayton and Williams, two players who should be right at the core of the team's success for years to come, took the stage a little before 7:30. The more gregarious Clayton handled the microphone, playfully boasting about Sunday's game in the Metrodome and, to the crowd's delight, predicting big things for the Bucs this season.
"We don't think, we know," said Clayton, responding to a shouted question about the team's confidence this fall. "We're not playing around this year. We love our fans, and we've got a lot of young talent on this team. We love you all Tampa. You represent.
"Cadillac and me, we're from the SEC, and where we come from, the fans are crazy. What I love about this place, the very first time I stepped in that stadium, I felt like I was home because you guys are crazy."
A little rain had fallen early in the evening on Friday, but as Clayton spoke from the stage, a beautiful Tampa evening faded to sunset above him. Red and pewter Miller Lite streamers fanned out from the stage to the upper deck of the courtyard, which was also ringed with Buccaneer fans. Handed beads and foam footballs to disperse to the crowd, Clayton tried twice to hit the rooters in the upper deck, only to fall a few feet short. He gave the beads over to Williams who reached the fans above on his first try. They made a great team.
Both were smiling as they left the stage, stopping to sign dozens of autographs.
"It kind of put me back in my college days, with the whole pep rally and all the fans coming out," said Williams. "My juices are flowing right now. I always heard NFL fans were laid-back and quiet, but not down here. I love the fans down here."
The Buc fans who gathered in Channelside on Friday were an optimistic lot, a group eager to kick off what they expected to be another playoff season for the home team. Hearing the enthusiasm and confidence of such key Buccaneer figures as Kiffin, Gruden, Clayton and Quarles only added fuel to that optimism.
Kevin and Becca Zarcone of Carrollwood brought the whole family down to the Courtyard specifically for Friday's free event, toting 11-month-old Dominic in his stroller and alternately holding two-year-old Nicoletta and five-year-old Haley on Kevin's shoulders. They recently purchased four sets of game tickets for this year's campaign and they couldn't be more excited for the onset of the season.
At least, they thought they couldn't be more excited, until Nece led a raucous "Defense, defense!" chant and Kiffin stomped through his typically high-octane speech. Now the Zarcones are counting the days until the September 18th home opener in Raymond James Stadium.
"We are ready; we cannot wait for our first home game to get here," said Becca Zarcone. "We really enjoyed seeing the players up on the stage, getting us wound up for the season and throwing things to the crowd. It's nice hearing that these guys have such a positive outlook for the future. They think we're going to go places, and that really builds the excitement for the fans."
The players and coaches who attended Friday's party were just as impressed with the fans, who kept streaming in by the hundreds throughout the evening. Phillips called the crowd the team's "12th man" and expressed confidence that the Bucs' hometown advantage would be back in full force this fall. Quarles couldn't help but feel that the Bucs were preparing for something big this year, and he shared that thought to an appreciative crowd. Nece simply soaked in the scene and reminded himself of the reason he loves his job.
"This is the fun part," said Nece. "This is why you play. We love the fans. This is a great opportunity to communicate with the fans, to have some fun with Tampa. This definitely gets the juices going. Last night there was excitement in the air [in Foxboro] because it was the first game, but to be here right in the middle of your own fans just adds to the electricity for us personally.
"I can't wait for Sunday, because I'm going to know these fans are back here rooting for us."