With the 66th pick in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Ronde Barber, cornerback, Virginia.
Considered too small and too slow to be an impact player, no one could have predicted that this player, destined for failure, would provide the greatest sports moment Tampa Bay has ever experienced.
I’ll never forget preparing to watch that game.
The NFC Championship Game was being hosted by the same team that had been our nemesis in the postseason for several seasons before. The hated Philadelphia Eagles were playing in their final game ever inside the “Vet” and also playing the team they “always” beat in the Buccaneers to go to the Super Bowl.
The stars had aligned for the Eagles, and it sure looked that way to start the game.
As Eagles return man Brian Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 70 yards and immediately instilled doubt into my head.
The scoring began with a Duce Staley 20 yard touchdown run a few series after that opening kickoff, which gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
Before the end of that 1st quarter and after a Mike Alstott 1-yard touchdown run, the Buccaneers had taken a 10-7 lead and given hope to Bucs fans who had had no hope when facing the Eagles.
Brad Johnson found Keyshawn Johnson on a quick slant in the end zone, and the Bucs would command a 17-10 lead heading to the locker room at halftime.
As the game moved closer and closer to its conclusion, it seemed as if it was a race against the clock for the Buccaneers. Despite a 10-point advantage in the 4th quarter, there was not one Bucs fan who felt confident that the Bucs would be the team heading to the Super Bowl.
The Eagles kept raising that doubt inside the heads of Bucs fans as they put together a drive later in the 4th quarter which got deep within Buccaneers territory. Then…
It would go down as the most significant play in the history of Tampa Bay sports.
It was the play that propelled a Tampa Bay professional sports franchise to the championship game, which they would ultimately win.
It was a play that both erased and embraced 26 years of history that mostly included a losing mentality.
It was a play that sent me, fully clothed, into my swimming pool in 40 degree weather filled with excitement.
As Ronde Barber intercepted that Donovan McNabb pass and raced for the end zone, the goal of many sports fans was achieved. Philly fans were left silent.
“Go home Eagles fans,” Gene Deckerhoff proudly proclaimed on the Buccaneers radio network heard on 99.5 WQYK. “Go home!”
The Eagles and their fans did go home while the Buccaneers would head to San Diego to face the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
While Ronde Barber had been a snub for the pro bowl that season, he did have a message for the voters.
“Pro Bowl my ass, I’m going to San Diego.”
This was the most important, most significant, and greatest play our city has ever endured.
That was the moment our team went from loveable losers to World Champions. We knew the Raiders just had no chance.
Thank you Ronde Barber.
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