C Tony Mayberry spread Pro Bowl credit throughout the Buccaneer organization
You couldn't walk through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room during Wednesday's lunch session without bumping into a newly-anointed Pro Bowler. Or at least the throngs of media surrounding them. Tampa Bay's super six – 2000 Pro Bowl selections FB Mike Alstott, LB Derrick Brooks, S John Lynch, C Tony Mayberry, LB Hardy Nickerson and DT Warren Sapp – took reporters' questions calmly but with little fanfare.
Though all six of the Bucs' current crop of Pro Bowlers are repeat selections, it wasn't the familiarity of the honor that kept them grounded. In fact, each player indicated that two factors tempered their excitement.
First, there is quite a bit of unfinished business ahead, as the Bucs look for a victory to clinch a playoff berth and two wins to nail down the NFC Central title.
Second, all of the players that were selected felt that the honor could have just as easily landed on some of their teammates.
Mayberry covered both topics when speaking of his reaction to the announcement that he would be making his third straight February sojourn in Hawaii. "It's a great individual honor," said Mayberry. "I'm proud of it and I feel fortunate to be selected. But at the same time, it's a team game. We have 53 guys that have to go out there this Sunday and win the game.
"You never get used to anything like this…it's always an honor. But, going over the last two years, it felt much sweeter in 1997 because the team was more successful. It seemed different last year because we weren't in the playoffs. The players in the Pro Bowl are some of the greatest players in the game, and it's an honor to be mentioned in the same breath with them, but it might mean more if this was golf or tennis. This thing is really a team honor."
Though each of the Bucs echoed this sentiment, it's possible that the Pro Bowl selection was most significant to Nickerson, who is making his fifth all-star appearance and his fourth in a row. Nickerson's feeling of accomplishment has been intensified by his scary bout with pericarditis last season. The 13th-year veteran missed the Bucs' last six games of 1998 after contracting a virus that caused an inflammation of the sac around his heart. Through a prescribed period of rest, Nickerson was able to avoid any permanent damage to his heart, and he has come back in 1999 with a renewed zeal for the game.
"It wasn't clear last year if I would be able to make it back to the same level of play," said Nickerson. "I set my mind in the off-season to become a better player this year, and I think a lot of people have noticed. This one is much sweeter (than his previous Pro Bowl selections). I've been working extremely hard. Last year at this time, I was just sitting around, wondering if my heart was going to heal, if there would be any lasting effects. I think this is the best year I've had; it's definitely been the most fun. Each Sunday, I've gone out and tried to leave everything I had on the field."
This year's Pro Bowl announcement came sandwiched between the team's stunning 45-0 loss at Oakland and a game of building importance with the arch-rival Green Bay Packers. Rather than being a distraction from the task ahead, Lynch sees it as motivation. "It's a big thrill," he said. "This week had been kind of a downer, but this is great for not only the guys who made it but the whole defense, the whole team. It's a representation of how well this team has played this year. It's nice to have the respect of the years."
Sure, but how did Lynch react when he first heard the news of Tampa Bay's NFC-high five starters? "They obviously voted before the Oakland game," said Lynch with a smile.
Like Mayberry, Sapp and Brooks, Alstott will be making his third straight Pro Bowl trip after once again earning the sole fullback spot on the team. He took the news with the same mixture of gratitude and determination as his teammates. "I'm excited; it's obviously one of the things I wanted to accomplish," said Alstott. "It doesn't override what we're going to accomplish as a team, though. It's great to be going, especially with so many of my teammates, but I want to stress that the playoffs are more important, the two-game season ahead is more important. I'm not downplaying the honor – I want to get there every year – but on my list right now, I've got a couple of things higher: the playoffs, the bye week, and on down the list."
As in 1997, the Bucs learned of their serious Pro Bowl haul while in the midst of a playoff race. However, only one of the Bucs' eight selections that year, LB Hardy Nickerson, was voted in as a starter. That total ballooned to a team-record five this year, four from the team's third-ranked defensive unit. "This is a small indication of how well our defense has played as a whole," said Brooks, who will make his second consecutive Pro Bowl start. "Now we want to justify it as we did in 1997. We went pretty deep into the playoffs that year, and we want to go even further this year."
Overall, the Bucs' six honorees stressed that their success was a function of their teammates' efforts. Said Mayberry: "It's easy to play to the best of your ability when you look across the locker room and see such great players. You have to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and the personnel department for finding talented guys, even the assistant coaches for developing those skills that you see on the field."
All six also hope to be somewhat tired heading into the February 6 Pro Bowl in Honolulu. After all, the Super Bowl is just seven days earlier.