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Martin Fennelly Columns

'02 Bucs unfazed by humbling season opener

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:55 AM

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TAMPA -

Ten years ago today, the Bucs stumbled from the field at Raymond James Stadium and their season opener. It had ended late in overtime. They'd watched their right-handed punter try a left-handed pass to avoid a safety. It was intercepted in the end zone, hapless, bizarre. The Bucs lost 26-20 to the New Orleans Saints. It was Sept. 8, 2002.

In the jumble, the new head coach found his star defensive tackle.

"We're fine," Jon Gruden said.

"Damn right we're fine," Warren Sapp said.

That was how it began, 10 years ago today. Bucs fans cherish how it ended. They had a world champion and nothing could take it away, not even the nine seasons that followed.

"It's crazy to say '10 years ago,'" said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who lived it.

Sunday, another Bucs team takes the field, with another new head coach, another new mindset, but a distant planet from 2002. This team is looking for a foothold. That team planted a flag.

"It doesn't seem like 10 years," said Derrick Brooks, who lived it. "It wasn't anywhere like with these guys now. They're fighting to make their name. We were used to winning, but we kept coming up short."

"When you don't climb Mount Everest, every year you don't, it gets a little taller," said Warren Sapp, who lived it. "We made it in 2002. We did the whole climb. But we could always see the top. Imagine how tall it looks when you have this bunch of kids. They can't even see the mountain … they ain't even on the boat to take them on the ocean to get to the continent to get to the mountain."

"It's a journey we all remember," said John Lynch, who lived it.

Barber recalled Gruden's first team meeting. It doesn't seem like 10 years ago.

"First meeting, first words out of his mouth: 'We're going to win the Super Bowl this year,'" Barber said. "Everybody was kind of like, 'Huh?' None of this, 'We're going to be better.' …'We're going to win this year."

A clock ticked.

"We were such a primed team," Barber said.

"We had a team we thought was capable of winning multiple championships and we hadn't won one," Lynch said. "It seemed back then that the Glazers might blow up the whole thing if we didn't get over the top. Jobs were on the line."

"It was more, 'We got to do this,''' Brooks said. "That was our pressure."

And there was Gruden walking into meeting rooms at the old rat trap, One Buc Place. Walking in on Tony Dungy's defense, demanding six touchdowns from them. Or Gruden asking Brooks, "You've been the best at your position, but can you be the best in the league?" Brooks became NFL defensive MVP. There was even Gruden's very first practice. He yelled to Lynch. It doesn't seem like 10 years ago.

"He says, 'Johnny, come over here,'" Lynch said. "He's throwing a dip in. He says, 'Cap' – he was already calling me 'Cap' for captain – he tells me, 'Cap, I want you to know, on the second play, I'm' – like he's the quarterback – 'I'm buzzing a slant right by that right ear of yours. You're not going to know what hit you.' I'd never had a coach talk trash to me."

Maybe it began in Celebration. The 2002 Bucs fled Tampa for training camp near Disney.

"I thought (Celebration) was a great idea," Lynch said, "We were a tight group, but usually after practice we went our separate ways. We were forced to bond a little more, and we did. Camaraderie, it was huge in '02."

Training camp: Sapp and Keyshawn, back and forth, personalities everywhere, Chucky everywhere, hotter than the sun, always pushing. The Bucs were the show, main stage.

"So many people fell in love with that team," Brooks said.

Before camp ended, the defense sensed something new.

"We started to see the offense," Lynch said. "We'd been beating our heads against the wall. As much as we loved Tony, there had been some frustration. We began to see the change. We'd always slaughtered our offense in practice. It wasn't even close. It wasn't a fair fight. All of a sudden, we were being challenged."

That first week leading into that season-opener, Sapp, as usual, would go to Gruden's offense and invade his space for an hour, then follow him to the quarterbacks meeting. There was too much riding on 2002. When thunderstorms didn't let up, neither did the Bucs.

"We practiced in a garage," Brooks said with a laugh. "Usually, when it started raining, we'd head in. Jon spots the garage. …We end up in a garage, practicing. They moved cars, found a place where water wasn't coming in and we practiced. They were filming it – filming in a garage. I think we were on Level 5."

Then that opener, New Orleans, Gruden's debut, with that crazed ending, but a hint at what was to come.

"We came back," Brooks said. "We were down 20-10 and forced overtime. The offense showed some fight. Usually when we went down, we were done. We knew we'd be different. Did we know we'd be world championship different? No. But there was something there."

We're fine.

Damn right we're fine.

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