When Jorge Diaz arrived in Tampa in 1996, the Buccaneers hadn't made the playoffs in 15 seasons. By the time he left, the team was primed for a Super Bowl run.
Diaz, an offensive lineman, was signed by the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 1996, just a short time after Malcolm Glazer bought the team and hired Tony Dungy to be their head coach. Joining him in his rookie class were future stars Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham.
A former Division II player, Diaz made the Bucs' roster his rookie season. But the team struggled and finished 6-10.
"As a rookie, a lot of people weren't coming to the games," Diaz said. "I couldn't even give my tickets away. It was tough."
But in his second year, he became a full-time starter and things took a turn for the better.
"The awesome thing about that was that we were all, the 53 guys and the ownership… everyone was heading in the same direction," Diaz said. "I think that offseason (after my rookie year) was very special because of the camaraderie we had. I think Hardy (Nickerson) was the only guy in California, but everyone else was here in the offseason and that brought us all together. And we all wanted to win. None of us liked losing. We wanted to win."
Diaz paved the way for a prolific rushing attack, led by Alstott and Warrick Dunn. By 1999, his fourth season, the Bucs had made the playoffs. The team reached the NFC Championship game but fell to the Rams, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Diaz left the Buccaneers following the 1999 season and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys. Many of his former teammates would build on the foundation he laid and help lead the Buccaneers win their first world championship in franchise history.
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
"I had a lot of friends, a lot of former teammates that were on the Super Bowl team," Diaz said. "We had our chance in 1999. We lost to the Rams in the (NFC) Championship game. We had our chance. But getting to that pinnacle, where we started and where we were at by the time I left … there is a great sense of pride."
Diaz retired from the National Football League in 2000 after playing one season for the Cowboys. He returned to football in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League and finished his playing career with the Austin Wranglers a year later.
Diaz always thought that when he was done playing football, he would be a teacher and a coach.
"I was like many players," Diaz said. "You think you're going to play forever. It doesn't last as long as you think it will. I went to college to coach and to teach Spanish and when I got to the NFL I got involved with restaurants and television. I started doing radio shows and stuff like that. That was the great thing about having this opportunity – it opened my eyes. I was able to open doors that I didn't even think were possible and explore options that really changed my life."
After being exposed to the restaurant industry, Diaz had found his calling.
"I am a managing partner now with Fleming's Prime Steak House and Wine Bar, which is a part of Bloomin' Brands," Diaz said. "For people out there, that's the Outback Steakhouse family of restaurants. It's based here in lovely Tampa."
"In a sense, I did get into coaching. I coach people in the restaurant industry. I'm a head coach in a sense. I love what I do."
Photos from Jorge Diaz's playing career with the Buccaneers.