Head Coach Jon Gruden (right) has designs on getting five-time Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson involved with the team once again
Four quarterbacks from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' past stood shoulder to shoulder, trying to squeeze close enough for a picture. Jeff Carlson, Steve DeBerg, Casey Weldon and Doug Williams smiled for the camera, laughed at the jokes coming from Jon Gruden behind them and generally seemed to be enjoying themselves. Still, you couldn't have blamed them if they were just a bit nervous.
After all, in the very same building, lurking somewhere in the crowd, were Deacon Jones and Reggie White, perhaps the two best QB hunters of all time.
That will give any passer pause.
That Jones and White were at Friday evening's function at Splitsville in Tampa's popular Channelside was a bit of an adjunct to the event, though obviously a very welcome one (if you weren't a quarterback, that is...Jones actually asked, with a growl, why he hadn't been allowed on the stage when the QBs were up there!).
The true purpose of the evening was what was happening on stage, bringing Buccaneer alumni back together and, more importantly, back into the consciousness of the franchise. Along with those four passers, dozens of players from the team's past made it to Splitsville on Friday, delighting Gruden, the force behind these annual get-togethers.
After 90 minutes of mingling, bowling and enjoying food and drink, the party had been called toward the dance floor by MC Gruden, who wanted to address all of the alumni in attendance. Gruden spoke for about 15 minutes, starting and ending his presentation with the exact same words: "I love you guys."
"I take this very seriously," said Gruden of the franchise's newfound attempts to connect with its past. "I'm proud to be a Buccaneer and I'm proud of our alumni. We were pleased to win a championship for this franchise a couple of seasons ago, but a lot of you guys are the pioneers. You did the hard work to get us where we are."
Jones, the inventor of the term 'sack,' was in attendance because he had visited the current Buccaneer players the day before and delivered an energizing pep talk in the team meeting room. White was in town for a meeting and had been invited to the event by one of his best friends, Buccaneer and Green Bay Packer alumnus Hardy Nickerson.
Most importantly, dozens of Tampa Bay alumni were in the house, as was the design of Gruden and the team's new General Manager Bruce Allen, another Buccaneer who believes strongly in the need to include former players. Mark Robinson chatted with Jorge Diaz. Tony Mayberry traded stories with Jimmie Giles. Williams, now a personnel executive for the Buccaneers, reminisced about the old times with Kevin House, one of his favorite receivers from the early 1980s.
There might not have been a better symbol of the sea change in the Bucs' dealings with their alumni than Williams, who had been somewhat estranged from the franchise for the better part of two decades. Many thought all the bridges had long since been burned between Williams and his first NFL team (he won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1988), but a similar alumni event two years ago had proved that untrue. Just months after taking over as the Bucs' head coach, Gruden had reached out to former players who thought they had been forgotten. Williams was the guest of honor; in February, he left his head coaching post at Grambling to rejoin the Buccaneers.
"When Jon Gruden came on board, one of the first things he did was bring some of us former players in to talk to the young guys," said Williams. "He thought it was important for those guys to see the ones who had been in the trenches for this team before.
"So many of the former players still live in the area, so this just makes so much sense. This is good for us and good for the team, but it's also good for the community. These are the guys who are going to go out into the community and sing the praises of the players that are here today."
Giles, a Pro Bowl tight end who ranks as one of the best players in team history, certainly recognized the change.
"My last year playing was 1986, almost 20 years ago," said Giles. "But until two years ago, nobody from the Buccaneers had ever called me."
All that has changed now. Giles recently represented the Buccaneers during the NFL Draft at the draft headquarters in New York. Gruden hopes other former players can be brought into much closer association with the team and he particularly singled out Nickerson as a former Buc he would like to have around his current players.
"We're going to try to hire Hardy Nickerson tonight," said Gruden, and he didn't appear to be joking. "We've got contracts with us here and we're going to try to get him back."
Nickerson, who had recently returned from a two-week stint in Germany broadcasting NFL Europe games, is still considering his post-playing career options. One thing he definitely plans to do, however, is support the team for which he made five Pro Bowl appearances.
"This is a great opportunity for guys to get together and reminisce," said Nickerson. "I look forward to us getting back together when the season starts and really pushing the team."
When Gruden announced that Nickerson was his alumni 'Buc of the Year,' much as Williams was in 2002, Nickerson took the microphone and gave the perfect example of the importance of an obvious alumni influence.
"When I first got here to Tampa, the first person I talked to was (Richard) Batman Wood," said Nickerson, referring to the former star linebacker and one-time assistant for the Buccaneers. "He told me what I needed to do to help this team get back to winning. I took his advice to heart. I didn't want to just be average. I had visions of us being champions.
"I want to give that same type of guidance to today's players. Who better for them to hear from then the guys who wore the orange, and wore the red before them? We all sweated together, we all fought together for this team."
Of course, in addition to the higher purpose of the event, Friday's gathering was also a party. Players who had been chasing their own post-football pursuits, men like Brad Culpepper, Jerry Bell, Scot Brantley and Charley Hannah, got back together and traded the old stories. Some of the details might have been embellished, but the true history was there and ready to be revived.
"Oh, there were a lot of lies," said Robinson, a standout safety in the late '80s and early '90s. "We get better every time we get together. I think I'm up to 500 tackles and 20 interceptions every season. But we want to bring it all back together.
From my standpoint, I can see a big difference in how the franchise is trying to get us involved. I was with Kansas City before I came to Tampa, and they did an excellent job of including their alumni. Now, since Jon Gruden got here, the team has made an effort to involve all of us, and that means a lot. We may be has-beens, but we're part of the community and we are the ones who will carry a flag for this team."