In a glassed-in wall display in the lobby of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters, One Buccaneer Place, there stands a display detailing the franchise's history of head coaches. On Friday, afternoon, Paul Stewart stood in front of the glass and described to his wife, Kerrie, the circumstances under which he had met each of the eight men in the display, from John McKay to Raheem Morris.
Few Buccaneer fans could make the same claim, but of course Stewart is not the ordinary fan, nor were any of the three dozen men, women and children who accompanied him to One Buc Place on Friday. All were members of the thriving Bucs UK fan club, which was formed in the early '80s but has rarely seen a year quite like 2011.
In October, the Buccaneers spent a week in the United Kingdom preparing for this year's International Series game against the Chicago Bears at London's Wembley Stadium. Stewart and his group had several opportunities to interact with the team during that week, particularly during a five-day stay at the Pennyhill Park resort in Surrey. Just a month later, a huge Bucs UK contingent made the opposite trip across the pond to enjoy a week in sunny Florida capped off by a chance to once again see its favorite team play against the Houston Texans on Sunday.
"It's almost like the icing on the cake," said Stewart. "They've had the steak dinner and now they're coming for dessert. Wembley was a fantastic experience – that was the Buccaneers coming to our side of the Atlantic. Well, now here we are, and we've all based our vacations around this game. We're all here for the game against the Houston Texans and we come to this big event. It really is like a two-way street. You came to our shores and now we've got to come to yours."
Two days before the game, the club members were invited to the Buccaneers' state-of-the-art facility to receive an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour as a thank you for their years dedicated fandom. The tour started in the aforementioned lobby, which doubles as a team museum, where the long-time fans cooed over the Lombardi Trophy and bustled around amid the various displays.
"We brought over 40 members of the Bucs UK here who have come over here for the game against the Houston Texans and now they're getting a tour of One Buc Place," said Stewart. "Lots of them are taking pictures. This is a fantastic experience for them and it means a lot to me that they're all getting to do this, thanks to the Bucs today."
Stewart formed the Bucs UK fan club in 1984 after watching a particularly exciting game between Tampa Bay and Miami, with an initial six members. It now runs more than 300 strong and also boasts an impressive web site, Bucpower.com, packed with historical franchise information.
Gary Botteley was one of the club's earliest members, back when it was struggling to stay alive in 1986. The club came close to disbanding a few years into its existence, but the members' love of American football and their adopted team kept it alive. Now it's stronger than ever, and its personal connection with the team grows by the year.
"I think it's a depth of passion that we all share for our own team, whatever the sport," said Botteley. "Soccer is obviously the big game in England, and if you support a soccer team you support them to the ends of the earth almost. It's no different for us coming here to Tampa. It is just our passion."
Added Stewart: "It's always been a whole family spirit. The support the Buccaneers have given the fan club, right back to 1984, has been fantastic. It's a way we can say thank you and it means a lot that we can do that. It's just great. We're Buccaneer fans. We're on the other side of the Atlantic but we're proud to be part of the family."
Stewart and company came to One Buc Place bearing gifts, or rather one very impressive gift. In recent months, the club has sold donated Buccaneer memorabilia and raised a collection at the Wembley game with the goal of making a donation to the Glazer Family Foundation. On Friday, when the tour hit the Bucs' huge team auditorium and the club gathered on the stage for a group picture, Stewart unveiled a check for $1,550 and presented it to the team.
"The Bucs UK have had a whole series of events going on to raise money for the Glazer Family Foundation," he said. "It's on behalf of the Bucs UK to say thank you for everything you guys have done for us."
The group then split into two to follow a pair of guides around the Bucs' headquarters, getting an up-close look at every corner of the expansive place. Stewart has been in the building before – and Botteley actually recalls a tour of the old One Buc Place two decades ago – but most of the visitors were seeing it for the first time. Stewart knew they would be impressed.
"I think it's how much work has gone into building this whole facility," he said. "This is the number-one facility in the NFL – the locker room, the weight rooms, the training fields. They are all getting to realize what a fantastic facility this is for the players to work at."
Indeed, the franchise has provided its players with everything they need to maximize their talents and perform on Sunday. What the Bucs UK members provide – like all avid Buccaneer fans in Florida and abroad – is a reason to excel. The passion of Buccaneer fans drives the franchise in its pursuit of championship, and the Bucs UK fan club is an exceptional embodiment of that passion.