Last Modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 11:09 AM
By Scooter Hobbs / American Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Raphael, the Tampa taxi driver, assured me the Saints had nothing to worry about.
“Sometimes the Bucs show up,” he said. “But they never play. Never.”
“Saints haven’t been playing too good lately,” I said.
“Trust me,” Raphael said. “Saints win easy. How many touchdowns Drew Brees want to throw? That’s how many he can get today.”
We were headed to a place called Lee Roy Selmon’s, the late Tampa Bay Buccaneer Hall of Famer’s sports bar, no more than a good, solid Hail Mary from Raymond James Stadium.
I thought it would be cool to watch the Saints’ playoff hopes unfold behind enemy lines, mingling with Tampa Bay fans, clinically observing the other side.
This game is basically a playoff game for the Saints, and the last Saints playoff game I covered was from a bar in the French Quarter, which had all manner of nutty and exotic and very quotable fandom, including at least one cross-dresser.
“Good luck,” Raphael said as I paid him. “No problem for Saints. Buccaneers? They need to fire the whole bunch of them. Put that in your story.”
Nothing like a little civic pride.
But this would seem to be the place. Lee Roy Selmon was the closest thing to an icon the Tampa Bay Bucs ever had, one of this city’s most beloved figures before his untimely death from a stroke two years ago.
This should be a Buccaneer haven. Maybe there will be the bonus of some LSU and Iowa fans trashtalking in advance of Wednesday’s Outback Bowl.
So in Lee Roy’s foyer, there they were, proudly displayed: Auburn and Florida State helmets butting facemask to facemask.
So much for the Tiger-Hawkeye angle.
But, OK, let’s see how serious the Bucs’ fans are about spoiling the Saints’ season.
I want to hear the other side, the venom, the frustrated hatred for a divisional rival, spoilers.
So turn the corner into the chaos of the main bar and first thing I see is a table of four —two Drew Brees jerseys, a Marcus Colston and a leftover Reggie Bush.
They’re dog-cussing hated rival Atlanta, as the Falcons are on one of the 4,000 televisions and finding yet another way to lose, this time to Panthers, this time the one time the Saints wanted them to win and leave the division title up there for grabs, along with a first-round bye for the Who Dats.
Wasn’t going to happen.
I asked the waiter where all the Bucs’ fans were.
“This is really more like a Green Bay Packer hangout,” he said. “Not sure why.”
Could have fooled me.
For all the world, it looked like home away from home for the Chicago Bears, who were kicking off against those very Packers at the same time the Saints and Bucs would tangle.
Or the New England Patriots. Kansas City Chiefs. Baltimore Ravens. Even the San Diego Chargers, who I didn’t know had any fans.
And now, over in the corner, that makes it official. Three days from the Outback Bowl I’ve now seen Buffalo Bill-clad fans in Tampa than LSU fans who aren’t affiliated with the school.
“It’s really kind of a hodgepodge,” I told the barkeep.
“Trust me, it’s a Packer place,” he said.
As luck would have it, I found myself standing next to a discreet Tampa Bay fan, wearing a simple t-shirt with a logo.
“Really, if you want to see Bucs’ fans, maybe go to The Press Box,” he said.
“There’s no cheering in the press box,” I said, but he didn’t get it.
“I think there’s a few Bucs over in the corner,” he said.
He was right, judging by the jerseys, but they didn’t appear to be watching the game, just idly socializing and gossiping. They didn’t even look up when Lance Moore ignited things by hauling in a long touchdown pass from Brees on the opening possession.
The Saints table was rocking.
Moments later, however, the Saints fell for the flea-flicker, and there arose quite a clutter from the opposite corner as Tampa Bay answered with a long touchdown pass.
Bingo, I thought, and sidled over.
“Hey, at least we scored one touchdown,” one of them said. “I didn’t think we would.”
They wouldn’t be heard from again.
Brees to Moore was followed by Brees to Jimmy Graham, to Kenny Stills, to Robert Meachem, seemingly to whomever he pleased.
“You’re from Louisiana,” the discreet Bucs fan asked. “Tell me. When Brees gets bored, do they just pull a fan out of the stands and let him throw a touchdown to him for kicks. Seems that way when we play the Saints.”
“Pulling for the Bucs, but I like the Saints,” his girlfriend, a self-proclaimed football junkie said. “At least they can be fun to watch. The Bucs, I’ve been going to games since Vinny Testeverde ... they always stink.”
They certainly stunk Sunday ... and nobody seemed to care.
By early in the second half, Brees & Co. clearly had things under control, but a mild argument was underway at the one Saints table.
At the start, they were watching the Cardinals-49ers game out of one eye, since a Cardinals loss would put the Saints in the playoffs regardless of how bad the Buccaneers were stinking.
But now a Cardinal win could move the Saints to the No. 5 seed, but nobody could figure out if that was good or bad. Their heads were on a swivel, trying to watch the 4,000 TVs all at once. Over the next 30 minutes the NFL playoff scenarios flipflopped and keeled over and backturned two or three dozen times on all the TVs. Hopes were alive, dreams were destroyed. And then the Packers scored late on an Aaron Rodgers long bomb and — true to the bartender’s word — the place went double bananas. The Saints guy in the Reggie Bush jersey threw up his hands. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” he said. “I give up. I just know we’re in.” There was a pause. “Is there any way we can play Tampa again?” Raphael was right.