TE Blake Spence was thrilled to still be in Buccaneer colors on Monday, August 28
One day years ago, while still a small boy growing up in Southern California, Blake Spence spied a Buccaneers' hat in a sporting goods store. Admiring the logo and colors, Spence bought the hat; at that moment, a life-long Bucs' fan was born.
That wasn't exactly an easy cross to bear in the '80s and early '90s, particularly 3,000 miles from Florida.
"I took a lot of grief for it for years," said Spence, "but I'm looking pretty smart now."
Yes, in both senses of the word. Spence now dons the Bucs' (new) colors every day, and both he and the team thinks he looks darn good in them. In fact, Tampa Bay needed just four days with Spence to decide he should have a place on the 53-man roster.
Team colors have changed from those that first captivated Spence, but his enthusiasm for the team hasn't waned a bit. It seems like a smile from fate that this third-year player, who was a New York Jet as recently as August 21, is suddenly a Buccaneer. If so, it's only fair, because fate previously conspired to keep him away.
After acquiring Spence off waivers from the Jets on August 23, the Bucs acknowledged that they were interested in the former Oregon tight end during the 1998 draft. Interested enough to take Spence in the fifth round? We'll never know, because that pick was dealt to the Jets in order to obtain FB Lorenzo Neal. The very pick sent to New York by the was the one used to select Spence.
"Back when I was just coming out of college, they were looking at me," said Spence, who was aware of, and excited by, the Bucs' interest. "The irony of it all is that the pick that was used on me was traded from Tampa. It's funny how that works out. But they had their eye on me from back then, and it's always good to have someone that really wants to play for you, too."
So it took an extra two years, but Spence got his chance to impress the Bucs' firsthand beginning last Wednesday. As much as he wanted to make the most of that opportunity, he knew time was against him. The Bucs would play their final preseason games just two days later, and two days after that, they would pare their roster by 17 players.
That made the Bucs' preseason finale against Kansas City on August 25 Spence's one full-speed audition. Since his time at tight end would probably be limited, he knew he needed to prove his worth on special teams.
"I was amped for that game," he said. "I mean, I'm playing for my favorite team, and I knew it was do-or-die, basically. I was coming off being cut, but luckily I get picked up and it happened to be my squad. So I was just geeked up."
But would that play to his advantage? Special teams definitely call for full-throttle effort, but it's best when it's a controlled fury. Spence found that balance.
After a fourth-quarter Buccaneer touchdown, Martin Gramatica kicked off high and deep. Several Tampa Bay cover men, including Spence, broke through the Kansas City blockers much quicker than expected, and Spence hit return man Desmond Kitchings at the seven, causing a fumble. S David Gibson picked up the loose ball and returned it two yards for a touchdown.
It was essentially a meaningless score, increasing the Bucs' lead from 30-7 to 37-7. But it was the kind of play that can turn a game around during the regular season, and so it was far from meaningless for either Spence or the team.
"Sure it helped them make the decision, but I can't be happy with that," he said. "I've got to keep going."
Spence was referring to Sunday, August 27, both the end and the beginning of his quest. The Bucs made their final roster cuts that day, and Spence wasn't among them. But he also would like to take a more active role than he did in New York.
"I was basically the third tight end and a real limited special teams player," he said. "I got to make one pretty big play in the Championship Game. I scored a touchdown in one game against Dallas, and that's about all I did the whole time I was there."
That's a quick glossing over of one of the biggest plays in recent Jets history. As a rookie in 1998, Spence caught a ride with a hot team, as the Jets rolled to a 12-4 record and the AFC East title in Head Coach Bill Parcells' second season. New York then defeated Jacksonville in the playoffs to earn a spot in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
In the third quarter, the Jets held a slim 3-0 lead over the favored Broncos in Mile High Stadium. Denver attempted a punt from deep in its own territory, and Spence blocked it, leading to a Jets' recovery at the Broncos' one and a Curtis Martin touchdown. The Jets couldn't hold the lead, but Spence's play nearly propelled them into the Super Bowl.
Maybe a more active role would produce more such plays. Perhaps he'll get a larger opportunity with the Bucs, where new offensive coordinator Les Steckel is likely to utilize the tight end position more than Tampa Bay fans have seen in the past. Spence, who caught 91 passes at Oregon, has always been considered a good pass-catching tight end.
"You get dubbed a specific type of tight end right from the start," said Spence, who weighs in at 6-4, 249 pounds, roughly the same size as the Bucs' three other tight ends. "I don't know if you start believing what people are telling you or what."
Of course, in a larger sense, Spence is much more well-rounded. He likes the outdoors, but that's a pretty broad spectrum. Spence covers most of it, from laconic fishing to hyperactive snowboarding.
"I'm pretty much interested in everything," he said. "I like to try new things all the time. But snowboarding is definitely one of my favorites, and surfing is becoming one of them. I surfed a lot this past summer. Anything out in nature, I'm all for."
He spent part of the last offseason 'exploring' his home state. "I was in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Baja California, Cabo San Lucas, L.A., Santa Barbera," he said. "I was just all over the place, fishing, surfing, everything."
He had to head back to New York in the summer, of course, but his travels weren't over. A whirlwind week took him down the coast and made him sweat out two cut days in less than a week. He's up for about 10-12 more trips this year, all on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' charter plane. That's a dream come true for Spence, and a validation of the years he stuck with his favorite crew.
"They're the underdog," said Spence of the Buccaneers, who are quickly shedding that label. "I've always loved the underdog, and I just stuck with them ever since. Everyone thought I was crazy, but now they don't."