John Racener knows a good bet when he sees one.
On Sunday, Racener figured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would stage an entertaining head-to-head battle with the Carolina Panthers, and he was right. He was also in attendance, watching in person as his hometown team improved to 6-3 with a 31-16 win to continue its magical 2010 season.
The runner-up in the Main Event at the 2010 World Series of Poker, Racener also knows a thing or two about head-to-head battles. By advancing to the final two with eventual champ Jonathan Duhamel, the 24-year-old professional poker player collected a stunning $5.5 million purse.
Racener's amazing run in poker's biggest event made the Tampa native a celebrity in both the poker world and at large, and he was one of a group of notable fans who turned out Sunday to see the Buccaneers take on the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. With the Bucs fielding a young and talented squad and proving each week that they are in the 2010 playoff race for the long haul, many of their most well-known fans have wanted to take in the action on person.
Indeed, Tampa Bay's home field has become a popular celebrity destination on Sundays. In October, such notable figures as Harry Connick Jr., Gary Sheffield and Joe Maddon watched the Buccaneers take on the defending-champion New Orleans Saints.
For the Carolina game, Racener cheered on the Bucs along with professional tennis stars James Blake and John Isner; former Buccaneer and Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Grant Balfour; and the rising-star rock band Paper Tongues. During the game, the Buccaneers took time out to recognize each of the special guests and let them greet the crowd.
The 30-year-old Blake turned pro in 1999 and has since won 10 titles, all of them on hard surfaces, where he has a 10-9 record in final matches. Blake currently stands ninth among active male players on the ATP Tour with 24 finals appearances, and his all-time record in singles matches in ATP, Grand Slam and Davis Cup events is 329-211. Blake was also named the ATP's Comeback Player of the Year in 2007 after his remarkable return from a run of misfortune in 2004, including a broken neck suffered when he slipped on a clay court and ran into a net post. In 2008, he was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year.
The 25-year-old Isner is in the prime of his career on the ATP Tour. In July, he achieved his highest ranking yet, hitting #18. Isner achieved fame in the 2009 U.S. Open when he defeated highly-ranked American Andy Roddick. In the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, he opposed Nicolas Mahut in the longest professional tennis match ever, an 11-hour marathon that stretched over three days. Isner owns a career singles record of 75-60 and won his first title this past January in Auckland, New Zealand. He holds several Open Era tennis records, including most aces in a Grand Slam singles event (113).
Selmon remains the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who primarily played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, following his induction in 1995. The first college draft pick in team history, in the franchise's inaugural 1976 season, Selmon quickly became the face of the franchise and finished his career in 1985 with still-standing team records for sacks (78.5) and forced fumbles (28.5). In 1979, Selmon was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Buccaneers to a stunning division title in just their fourth year of existence. Selmon remains a prominent figure in the Bay area, as much for his ongoing commitment to the community as for his past NFL glory. A perennial contender for the NFL Man of the Year award during his playing career, Selmon was also instrumental in building the new football program at the University of South Florida.
A native of Sydney, Australia, Balfour has pitched in the Major Leagues since 2001 and has spent the last four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, helping them to playoff berths in 2008 and 2010. He was one of the Rays best relievers during the team's first-ever run to the World Series in 2008, pitching 58.1 innings and finishing with a 6-2 record, four saves, 14 holds, 82 strikeouts and a stellar 1.54 ERA. Balfour turned in another outstanding season for the Rays this past year, helping them win the AL East title with a 2.28 ERA and 56 strikeouts over 55.1 innings. Overall, his career totals include a 19-10 record, eight saves and a 3.81 ERA in 261 appearances. Balfour has also played for the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers.
Paper Tongues, whose eponymous debut album has produced several hits on the U.S. rock and alt rock charts, is comprised of singer Aswan North, guitarists Devin Forbes and Joey Signa, bassist Daniel Santell and drummer Jordan Hardee, plus Clayton Simon on synthesizer keys and Cody Blackler on rhode keys. The group first formed in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2007 and has since toured with such well-known bands as Jet, Switchfoot, Flyleaf and Muse. Paper Tongue has also made appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Lopez Tonight. Among the hits from its debut album are "Ride to California," "Trinity" and "Get Higher."**