My phone rang late Tuesday evening, around 11 pm. Busy at work, I didn’t get the chance to answer it.
Minutes later, I received a text message with a fair amount of Jewish guilt. It runs in the family.
The text came from my step-father. “I guess you don’t want to go to the Super Bowl parade tomorrow” was what it read.
As soon as I got out of the weeds my all too thirsty customers had created, I stepped outside to call him back. Following in the footsteps of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Buccaneers had planned an impromptu boat parade to celebrate their championship. My stepdad, aka the councilman, had an invite plus one to be on a boat, in the parade, alongside the players.
Who was I to say no?
I woke up untraditionally early that following morning on very little sleep but schoolgirl giddy to see what the day would hold. Originally scheduled to be overcast, the sun shone bright accompanied by a cool Florida breeze. Tampa needs no reason to throw a parade but our football team winning the Super Bowl, well… let’s just say there would be pirates.
We parked down by Tampa’s scenic Riverwalk where boat after water taxi after luxurious yacht was waiting to take players and local dignitaries (present company included) down the Hillsborough River, into the Bay and finally to a private press conference/celebration where the players and coaches would be honored.
Oh, and there would be beer, drunken goats, shared cigars and viral videos… but we’ll get to that in just a bit.
Arriving a few minutes prior to the boats taking off, our timing could not have been more perfect. Not exactly sure what I was in for that day nor how close I would actually be to the players, I walked along the sectioned-off portion of the Riverwalk to find none other than… Devin White rolling off a team bus. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard him speak or watched him play that the 22-year-old linebacker was named co-captain of the defense, alongside veteran Lavonte David. Not only is White’s personality infectious but he is a confident young man and an absolute beast on the field. Make no mistake, he was the best player on the field Super Bowl Sunday.
I immediately said hello, shook his hand and congratulated him on his victory. He was perfectly cordial. Although I regretted not getting a picture with him in the moment, there would be plenty more photo ops.
Then came the rest of the team, all assigned by position to their different buses, and ultimately boats upon which they would embark. “Let’s go to the offensive line boat” shouted center Ryan Jensen to guard Ali Marpet, cases of water under their arms, as they both scrambled around the docks looking where to go next. Everyone in Bucs garb and sunglasses eager for a parade, the weather could not have been any more ideal.
After saying a few more hellos and spotting a few more recognizable pros, i.e., Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski, we hopped on to our own boat, not a fancy players’ yacht but a comfortable water taxi with more importantly, an open bar. The bartenders were tipped graciously for their service. We kept ‘em busy.
I had brought with me a local Ybor City hand-rolled cigar that had been given to me the night before. I planned on partaking for the occasion but there was limited smoking on the Riverwalk and no smoking on the boat, so I held it in my mouth waiting the right moment to light up.
The parade route was mobbed. On either side the Hillsborough River were thousands upon thousands of crazed Buccaneers fans who came to pay their respect, some in red, many in Creamsicle orange. Some were lucky enough to be on a boat, or paddleboard, or jet ski as they also lined the river to catch a glimpse of their beloved Buccaneers.
The hour plus long boat ride ran south down the Hillsborough River then ended in the area known as Sparkman Wharf, near the Port of Tampa and adjacent to Amalie Arena where the Lightning hoisted their championship banner earlier this season.
We got off our boat and were suddenly smack dab in the middle of the celebration, hip-hop music blaring, players dancing, speeches waiting to start. Before I knew it, I was hobnobbing with Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Licht, Byron Leftwich and Vita Vea. My unsmoked cigar still in my mouth, I once again waited for the right moment to light up.
We filtered to the front of the stage where the Mayor was set to introduce the team to a rousing round of applause for all those lucky enough to be invited to the private event, once again, present company included.
First to the stage came owner Joel Glazer who admitted he couldn’t be happier for the team, its coaches, players and the entire institution. He brought up a beer-soaked but elated Jason Licht, general manager of the Bucs who was quick to thank his scouts and everyone involved within the organization from top to bottom. The humble head coach, Bruce Arians, followed and was quickly doused with another mini-container of Gatorade by the giant Vita Vea. Arians credited his team and was quick to point out that all free agents would be re-signed as they “Go for Two” and bring home yet another title to the Bay area.
The crowd went wild.
Then came the players, Devin White and Lavonte David, the perfect yin and yang linebackers, the young, brash White contrasting perfectly to the more reserved veteran. David, whose contract is up this year, told the crowd he’d had multiple conversations with his wife in the past, after far too many 4-12 seasons, that there was a point he wasn’t sure how much longer he could be a Buccaneer. Those times have changed. A 31-year-old, nine-year veteran, all with the Buccaneers, David was beside himself on stage while the younger energetic White bounced around smiling alongside him, showing nothing but respect for the elder statesman to his left. Arians assured David and the crowd he would be re-signed, which brought both cheers and tears. The duo was also quick to praise defensive coordinator Todd Bowles in the crowd who they said brought out the best in them.
Next to the microphone were wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, who were also incredibly gracious and humble. The sure-handed Godwin is also a free agent and will likely get looks from other teams in need of a skill player like him, driving up what the Buccaneers will have to pay for the gifted receiver. Arians once again came center stage with a beer in hand, and told Godwin just like he had told David before him, “You ain’t going nowhere either” to the rabid cheers of everyone within earshot.
Next came the defensive line, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett. A former Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, the topless and absolute shredded JPP told the crowd what this win meant to him. The beastly Barrett smiled alongside him and, like those before him, was assured that in a contract year, he would be a Buc moving forward.
It was a wild afternoon filled with energy and a bunch of young men who had fulfilled their dreams. As music blared in the background, hugs were shared by all. The day was almost over. At long last, I looked for a place to light my cigar.
Not so eager to end our afternoon, we walked towards the exit to find the 6’4”, 350-pound nose tackle Vita Vea posing for pictures with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drum line. Wanting one last picture, I asked the ever-gracious and personable Vea if he minded a moment. He was wearing an iron-on t-shirt of his quarterback Tom Brady on combine day 2000, boxer shorts and all. I commented that the shirt was hysterical. He laughed, knowing it was, assuredly having put it on that day to elicit such a response.
Vea noticed the unlit cigar still in my hand and asked if I had another. I told him it was unfortunately the only one I had but if he came down to Ybor City sometime, I’d get him all the cigars he wanted.
Smiling, he asked if he could have mine. I told him that it had it in my mouth for most of the afternoon but he was more than welcome to it. After having spent an entire season in isolation, throwing caution into the wind, the giant nose tackle said it didn’t bother him one bit. Who was I to not give my smoke to the Super Bowl champion?
So, after a sun-drenched, celebratory day of all things Buccaneer and Tampa Bay, my cigar got smoked after all… just not by me.
And speaking of Tom Brady, the guest of honor, we never spotted him in the crowd, only to find out later that the goat had apparently had a little too much to drink. Welcome to Tampa, my friend. A video of a stumbling and quite happy Brady being helped through the crowd immediately went viral as Brady later took to the internet blaming a “litTle avoCado tequila.” It reminded the world not only that Tampa likes to throw a party but that the goat was human after all.
Thanks to the councilman for bringing me along a boat ride I will never forget and thanks to the Buccaneers players and coaching staff for bringing us along a ride we’ll never forget either.