They stood around in the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium, waiting to take the field to the sounds of cannons pounding and fans cheering.
Sunday marked a celebration of the 2002 Buccaneer team that brought home the franchise’s only Lombardi Trophy. And it brought back virtually everyone from that squad.
In the tunnel area near the southwest corner of the field, former players, media, and NFL personnel jammed in like sheep, waiting for the first half to end. Jon Gruden chatted with Mike Alstott. Derrick Brooks and Booger McFarland squeezed by. Warren Sapp. Keyshawn Johnson. Monte Kiffin.
As the current Bucs jogged by towards the locker room, the flags raised, and the 2002 Bucs took the field. For Warren Sapp, running through that tunnel one last time was an emotional moment.
“That left knee hasn’t ever felt so good,” Sapp said. “Thought I had a couple more rushes in me. It’s special. It’s just a special place. From scratch. When I came here, it was eleven straight double-digit loss seasons, so to stand here ten years after the fact, it’s pretty gratifying.”
The turnout was a testament to not just the success the team found on the field, but also to the camaraderie and close-knit bunch that team encompassed. According to Sapp, the celebration started earlier in the weekend.
“It’s a party. We told more lies and drank more liquor last night than a little bit. We got that out of the way. It was great to see all the guys back together, and so many of us come back and make an effort to get back and be a part of something special.”
Gruden took the field last, arms raised over his head, carrying the Lombardi Trophy high in his right hand. Gruden, who flashed the “Chucky-like” stare from the podium on the field, says the bond he made with former players has lasted over the years.
“I see a lot of these guys here and there. I stay in touch with several of them. But to get them all back together and unite, it’s a great thing. Hopefully we take advantage of modern technology, take advantage of the emails and text messages, and keep an eye on one another like we did ten years ago.”
Gruden, who has been in the ESPN Monday Night Football Booth since 2009, noted in the tunnel that his current gig keeps him busy enough with football to temper the urge to return to the sidelines.
“I feel like I’m in coaching, really. I’m really close to the game. I get a chance to study the game, meet with the players, see them practice, meet the coaches. I’m just trying to hang onto the job I have.
“I miss it every day, but that’s one of the reasons I get up early. I love football. I’m very fortunate to have the job I have. It’s really satisfied the urge, if you know what I mean. I’m very busy.”
As much as this was a day to celebrate the team, it was also an opportunity for those former players to pay their respects to the fans who helped turned Raymond James Stadium into an imposing venue for opponents during their championship run.
“It was so huge,” Sapp said. “Talk about on third down, they never gave a quarterback a chance to even think about checking out of a play around here. I just wanted to come back and say thank you for everything (they) did for us, because without them, we wouldn’t have had a shot.”