Sunday December 24th 1994 was Orange Pride Day in Tampa Bay.
The last game of the season was also quite possibly the last NFL game that would be played in Tampa Bay. If you’re scratching your head right now, then sit down and hear Uncle Ray tell a little tale.
The Buccaneers wouldn’t even make it out of training camp that year before the news of the passing of owner Hugh Culverhouse on August 26th would make headlines. This suddenly put ownership of the team in play. Tampa Bay was trying to secure an existing MLB team to move here and occupy the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg when suddenly the Buccaneers seemed quite primed for the taking by any and all comers. This would serve as the 300lb gorilla in the room for the entire 1994 season.
On the field, head coach Sam Wyche led the team to a 2-9 start. Rookie running back and University of Florida Hall of Famer, ‘Gator Great’ Errict Rhett would become the first Buccaneer rookie to rush for over 1,000 yards that season, even though he didn’t make his first official start until week 9. A week 13 overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome would start a four game winning streak. Week 16, the last game of the season would see the Green Bay Packers come to town.
Green Bay needed to win to secure a wildcard birth. As it would eventually play out, the NFC Central would be won that season by the Vikings, who finished 10-6, with the Packers, Bears, and Lions all finishing 9-7. With very real questions as to where the Buccaneers might be playing beyond the season, Tampa Bay fans rallied like they always do and stamped the game orange pride day.
Over 65,000 fans would be at the Big Sombrero that day. The game would be blacked out locally. Packers fans came loud and proud like they always did but that day there was a strange sentiment around the stadium. Between Green Bay fans who realized their annual trip to Tampa Bay might be no more and Buccaneer fans who refused to let the questions surrounding the team ownership be a thing.
The beautiful Sunday afternoon found football fans of both quite agreeable. In fact, those of us tailgating after the game would stay well beyond sunset tossing the pigskin and telling stories. A few Packer fans even jumped the wall and grabbed a piece of the beautiful Tampa Stadium turf. Broke it down into smaller pieces, placed into small test tubes brought for the occasion and shared one with this reporter.
The home team lost that day to finish 6-10, but that day there truly felt like there were no losers. Just under a month later Malcolm Glazer would purchase the team for a record $192 million as well as immediately announce that the team would go nowhere.
The month of June is known nationally as Pride Month. A time to honor the victims of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. With Pride being a central theme of this article, if you will allow, to all of my Family and friends of the LGBTQ community, here’s to celebrating inclusion, and not tolerating exclusion. I’ll see you at the parade.
Sources: Sports Illustrated, Wikipedia, Baltimore Sun, Library Of Congress, St. Petersburg, Times(Tampa Bay Times).