Sasha Schuppach is about to pull off a three-week off an incredible three-week tour that would make any fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers jealous. In fact, it's probably safe to say that no Bucs fan has ever traveled as far in a 21-day span to see his team play.
Schuppach was at Candlestick Park on October 9 when his Buccaneers took on the San Francisco 49ers, and then he traveled across the United States to Tampa to witness the team's big win over the New Orleans Saints. Now, with the Bucs set to take on the Chicago Bears in the International Series game at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Schuppach is in London, ready to root his team on from the stands for the third week in a row. It's unlikely anyone else not actually working for the team can claim the same thing.
With an itinerary like that, there was only one place Shuppach was going to be with his group of friends on Saturday afternoon: Trafalgar Square, where the NFL staged an enormous rally for fans of American football in advance of Sunday's contest.
"The spirit here is nice," said Shuppach. "The weather is oh so nice. Not so much like Florida, but it's nice here."
Indeed, it was another sunny day in the U.K. for the Buccaneers, who brought Head Coach Raheem Morris and a group of players to Trafalgar Square to support the rally. Morris and rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers spoke from the massive stage at the front of the square and fired up the many Bucs fans in attendance. A group of Chicago Bears representatives, including Head Coach Lovie Smith and wide receiver Johnny Knox, also took the stage and, yes, there were a fair number of Bears fans on hand as well.
The afternoon also featured several performances by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders as well as highlight packages for both teams on a giant screen mounted next to the stage. In between the tributes to American football and Sunday's game, the rally included a number of local musical acts, and fans could avail themselves of dozens of refreshment stands and souvenir shops.
That Shuppach and his group would find themselves in the midst of this NFL haven, all of them bedecked in Buccaneers gear, is doubly impressive given that they hail from Switzerland. Members of the Buccaneer organization were thrilled to learn that they have a foothold in the shadow of the Alps, in a little town called Chur (pronounced "Core"). Shuppach runs a sports bar in Chur and it is covered in Buccaneers regalia 365 days of the year. In town, it is known as "The Home of the Buccaneers."
The Bucs can thank a trip Shuppach made to Florida almost 20 years ago for their incursion into Switzerland.
"My first trip to Florida was in '93," he explained. "I was in Tampa and I saw the Old Sombrero. I saw the spirit of the Old Sombrero and the fans, so I went to that game. Since then, I'm a Bucs fan."
A few years later, Buccaneer fever grabbed hold of Simon Conboy, a U.K. native who lives about 40 miles outside of London and is currently attending university in the city. Conboy, who is studying sports journalism and has his own blog, knows the American game well but is particularly passionate about the Buccaneers. In his case, it was a matter of good timing, as far as Tampa Bay is concerned.
"I started watching the team in '99, in the glory years," said Conboy. "I used to be able to not sleep late at night, so I started watching the NFL and I just loved the [Bucs'] glory years and watching that Holy Trinity of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch."
A service called Game Pass allows this British fan to watch as many NFL games as he wants, and he tries to watch all of them, especially if Tampa Bay is involved. Listening to Conboy break down the Buccaneers' chances in 2011 differs little from listening a Tampa native discuss his current team. Conboy scours the internet for all the NFL information he can absorb, and he's got the game down cold.
"I think we're pretty good," said Conboy of the Buccaneers. "Obviously, it's a tough division. The Saints and the Falcons are both looking pretty good right now, especially the Saints. But I'm feeling pretty good. The Falcons' O-Line is not playing up to the standards I would have expected so I think we've got a real shot of being on top. We just have to keep it going."
Conboy has now attended three straight NFL rallies in London, and he's likely to be back again next October. While his passion is for the Buccaneers, he's pleased that the league is making inroads into Europe no matter which teams come across the pond.
"I'm big on bringing the game over here," he said. "It's great to see the Bucs back here again. It's been great the last couple of years. I'm looking forward to seeing Raheem later on the stage. I heard Clayborn was going to be there. He's my boy for the season. That hit on Matt Ryan, against the Falcons, was my high-point of the season so far."
Indeed, the sprawling crowd at Trafalgar square made a strong argument for the NFL's growing popularity in London and throughout Europe. NFL jerseys of every color dotted the crowd, including all four teams in the NFC South. In just a short time, one could sweep the crowd and find at least 26 of the 32 teams represented by jerseys; undoubtedly, the other six were around somewhere.
Conboy himself sported a well-worn Derrick Brooks jersey and he spoke eagerly about studying the team's history and learning about the famous "Tampa Two" defense. Conboy is the type of devoted fan – and journalist in the making – that the NFL believes it can foster in the U.K. and beyond. The juxtaposition of the NFL's decorations – the huge Buccaneer pirate ship, inflates for both teams, a giant ship in a bottle, etc. – amid London buildings and statues that have been in place for hundreds of years was striking, and it was a sight that the local fans of American football clearly enjoyed.
And Shuppach, of course, is evidence that the game, and especially the Buccaneers, are reaching beyond the annual site of the International Series game. The Buccaneers have a thriving fan base in the Swiss Alps; who knows where they will go next?