When the Buccaneers made the cover of Sports Illustrated, fans took notice


Long before the Facebook, Myspace, Google, Yahoo, and heck, AOL, fans depended on the local fish wrap to see all the pictures from a Buccaneers game. Here in Tampa Bay we were so fortunate to have two local papers; The Tampa Tribue in the east and the St. Petersburg Times (Tampa Bay Times) here on the coast. Disclaimer, I worked selling, then delivering the Evening Independent for a couple of Summers, so if I seem partial to the Times, its probably because I am.

Before that long tangent, the original point was that other than preseason publications, and the Game Day programs at the stadium, we just didn’t see the Buccaneers in magazines much. But when they did appear on a national publication, boy was it worth it. The picture adorning the top of this article was none other than #42 Ricky Bell. The Buccaneers workhorse RB that along with an historic Bucs defense, helped the team to the 1979 NFC Championship game. It was published 40 years ago today.

Waiting For The Magazine To Come Of The Presses

For fans of all professional sports, seeing their heroes on the cover of SI was recognition. When moments of glory occurred like the USA defeating Russia in the 1980 Olympics. The original Olympic basketball dream team with Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, and Karl “the mailman” Malone. Even the swimsuit issue which I must confess, never really interested a teenager like me, LOL. Waiting each week to see what picture would adorn the Sports Illustrated cover was a thing.

But the magic with the Ricky Bell cover from so many years ago is that publication date. January 7th, 1980. Of course, most of you die hard, old school, bleeding orange, red, and pewter pirates out there know, that the Buccaneers had actually lost the Championship game to the Los Angeles Rams the day before, on January 6th, 1980. So why was #42 and the wildcard winning Buccaneers featured on this cover?

The Pony Express

Back in those days. The phones all had rotary dials. The pictures would have to be developed, then selected, and put into form. Sometimes the story of the week was apparent from the moment the game ended. The Buccaneers in 1979 WERE a big story. From worst to first. The team that lost those first 26 games in franchise history took the NFL by the collar and shook. They earned the right to be on that cover. Sadly, because it took a week to get the magazine written, bound, and circulated, there were times where the cover story from this week may have already faded from the glory that put them into the spotlight to begin with.

But for a rabid fanbase like that of the Buccaneers, it didn’t matter. It was all Hey, hey, Tampa Bay, and the Bucs really knew how to shine. So even if the team had already exited the post season, losing to the Los Angeles Rams, that Sports Illustrated sat on coffee tables, work desks, in classrooms, and even tucked under mattresses for safe keeping.

There was no internet, Facebook, ESPN, or text messaging. The real deal was the real feel and for Buccaneer fans in 1980, the feeling was really good.

Photo: Sports Illustrated