Appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Tampa Tribune
After so many years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s always seemed to me that Tampa Bay, like any place that wasn’t the “real Bay Area,” just doesn’t get it. Sure, I say all the right things about Tampa. After all, I live there half the time. But Tampa is insular, I thought secretly. It lacks the urban sophistication I’d come to love about the San Francisco Bay Area, my other “home.”
But Monday night I discovered something Tampa definitely doesn’t lack. A sense of community.
Monday night, every local television station covered the same thing: the triumphant return of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after an impressive Super Bowl win. Normally unflappable local anchors, their voices at least half an octave higher than usual, couldn’t contain their excitement.And for good reason.
Some 60,000 jubilant, pumped-up, red-and-pewter clad fans filled Raymond James Stadium to the top, braving 40 degree temperatures and chanting victory anthems. Some had been awaiting the arrival of their team for hours. The TV camera panned the crowd.”Tampaaaa!” went the chant. “Baayyyy!” was the response. The noise was deafening. And the signs: “Gruden for President” “Bucs #1.” “Thank You Bucs!” The energy was palpable, even through my TV set.
As the Boeing 777 carrying the team landed, it taxied under a huge double archway of water sprayed by the airport fire department. A half-dozen buses parked in a crisp line waited to convey the team, coaches and owner to the stadium. Newscasters in helicopters excitedly passed on the team’s progress to their colleagues live at the stadium. A Tampa Police department helicopter hovered noisily over the football field and two black-clad SWAT team officers rappelled to the ground. The crowd went wild.
I turned down the TV’s volume and opened my windows. From several miles away, I heard the roar of an ocean. An ocean of people.
I flipped channels to the national news. East Oakland was burning, just as it had when the Raiders won the AFC championship the week before. Win or lose, looters saw it as an opportunity to turn over cars, set fires, break windows, steal. Some longtime Oakland businesses, the fiber of the community, were damaged irreparably. Business owners, more sad than angry, told reporters that they would be forced to leave.
“Who would live here?” they asked.
I turned back to the local Tampa news just in time to see the Bucs hit the field. The stadium exploded. Fireworks lit the sky.One by one, the team and coaches took the podium, smiling jubilantly as they waved the huge Super Bowl trophy overhead. “Thank you!” they each called to the fans. “We love you, Tampa Bay! “Finally, everyone had spoken and the crowd dispersed.
But Tampa Bay wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. The celebration continued with a victory parade the following day. I watched from my office in a downtown high-rise. Some 100,000 Tampa Bay fans lined up ten-deep, a sea of red and black along the parade route.
They came and they kept coming. Old, young and in between. White, black, red, brown, yellow. In wheelchairs and pushing strollers. With kids and with briefcases. From my office window I could see six helicopters circling overhead. Led by a police escort with screaming sirens and lights flashing, the Bucs paraded through downtown Tampa in convertibles and pickup trucks, some smoking fat stogies; all smiling broadly. The crowd’s chants were so loud they could be heard 27 stories up.
“Let’s go downstairs to the parade,” a colleague said. “We’ll never see anything like it again in our lifetime.”
Down among the crowd, I looked at their faces. Yes, I saw die-hard football fans. But I saw much more.
I saw community pride, the kind we post World-War II children have only read about. Just for a moment, the people of Tampa Bay set aside their concerns about war, Al Qaeda, bio-terrorism, the stock market, unemployment, the economy. Just for a moment they set aside their differences in race, creed, political affiliation and joined together in celebration.
Just for a moment, they felt pride. Pride that the eyes of the nation were on their community and they rose to the occasion. My heart breaks for Oakland.
But it swells with pride for Tampa.