Monday, March 10, 2008

Debut of Tampa Bay Bandits, 3/6/83

“So, come on folks, let’s get the fever, be a Bandit Ball believer. We believe you're gonna love Bandit Ball.”
– Lyrics from “Bandit Ball” by Jerry Reed.

On March 6, 1983, Tampa Bay football fans got their first formal introduction to the concept of “Bandit Ball.” When the Tampa Bay Bandits of the newly formed United States Football League arrived on the scene 25 years ago, nobody knew quite what to expect. At least with movie icon Burt Reynolds as general partner and former University of Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier as head coach, fans knew Bandit football would be anything but dull.

There was certainly enough pre-game hype leading up to the team’s season-opening debut at Tampa Stadium. In the week before the game, an executive with the New England Patriots of the rival National Football League took a verbal shot at the Bandits, describing their roster as that of a semi-pro football team. Bandits’ owner John Bassett, in an act of equal parts defiance and showmanship, challenged the Patriots to a $1 million game after the completion of the USFL’s season. The winner would take home $500,000, and the other half would go to the charity of the loser’s choice.

Although that game never happened, Basset wanted to prove the USFL was more than a semi-pro league. Rosters throughout the league were dotted with former NFL players and newly drafted college stars, such as 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker from the University of Georgia. The Bandits’ roster featured numerous players with NFL experience, including its starting quarterback, John Reaves. A local product who attended Robinson High School, Reaves starred at the University of Florida, and then played 10 years in the NFL with Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Houston.

The Bandits could not have asked for more ideal conditions for their debut against the Boston Breakers. On a sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s, more than 42,000 fans gathered at Tampa Stadium for the spectacle that would become known as “Bandit Ball.” Although Reynolds missed the game because of a scheduling conflict, his friend, Jim Nabors of “Gomer Pyle” fame, drew a rousing ovation for his rendition of the National Anthem. One of the few glitches of the day occurred before the game, when windy conditions scuttled a planned delivery of the game-ball to midfield by parachutists.

In contrast to the 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who struggled to move the ball on offense and put points on the scoreboard, the Bandits showed early on that they would have no such problems. On the Bandits’ first drive, Reaves showcased a no-huddle attack that provided a glimpse of “Bandit Ball” excitement.

However, in a sequence that undoubtedly caused flashbacks to the first season of Buccaneers football, the Bandits’ initial scoring attempt, a 42-yard field goal try, was blocked as the result of a low snap.

Boston took advantage of the miscue, scoring the first points of the game with 58 seconds remaining in the first quarter, a 30-yard field goal by Tim Mazzetti.

The Bandits answered at the 8:59 mark of the second quarter with a six-play, 75-yard drive that produced a 6-yard scoring pass from Reaves to running back Ricky Williams. Williams, who took over primary tailback duties when starter George Ragsdale broke his ankle on the opening kickoff, earned a spot in the USFL record books with the first touchdown in league history.

Boston retook the lead before halftime with a 6-yard touchdown pass of its own from quarterback John Walton to tailback Anthony Steels. The score capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive that put the Breakers on top 10-7 at halftime.

Then the Bandits and Breakers provided a wild and memorable second half of football. The Bandits marched down the field from their own 17, behind the arm of John Reaves, who connected with receiver Eric Truvillion from 6 yards out to put Tampa Bay back on top, 14-10.

Truvillion provided one of the highlights of the day on Tampa Bay’s subsequent drive. With the Bandits threatening to score from Boston’s 4-yard line, a Reaves pass attempt was batted and intercepted in the end zone by Terry Love, who scampered the other way for what looked to be a 102-yard touchdown return. But Truvillion, a former quarterback at Florida A&M, tackled Love at Tampa Bay’s 2-yard line to prevent the score. Unfortunately for the Bandits, it didn’t take long for former Buccaneers running back Troy Davis to punch it in from the 1-yard line to give his team a 17-14 lead.

Boston had a chance to increase its lead in the fourth quarter, but a field goal attempt by Mazzetti hit the uprights. After that gaffe, it wasn’t too long before Tampa Bay scored the go-ahead touchdown on its ensuing possession. From Boston’s 33-yard line, Reaves found a wide-open Willie Gillespie, who made an acrobatic catch for a touchdown after blowing past Breakers cornerback Charles Harbison.

Ahead 21-17, Tampa Bay turned to its defense to ice the game. Safety Ken Taylor disrupted a John Walton pass at the Bandits’ 5-yard line on fourth down to prevent a potential game-winning score late in the fourth quarter. The change of possession would result in yet another dramatic example of “Bandit Ball.”

With just 1:36 left and facing fourth-and-inches at their own 29, Spurrier decided to keep the Bandits’ offense on the field rather than punt. Fullback Greg Boone was stuffed for no gain, but to the delight of all those wearing the Bandits’ colors of red, silver and black, the Breakers had lined up offsides on the play. The penalty resulted in an automatic first down and allowed Tampa Bay to successfully run out the clock.

Tampa Bay fans were not only treated to a successful 21-17 victory by the home team, but were given an entertaining brand of football that would become the franchise’s hallmark during the three years of its existence. Reaves put on a passing clinic in his debut, completing 28 of 39 passes for 358 yards and three touchdown passes. Williams gained 97 yards on 25 carries, while catching six passes for 49 yards and a touchdown.

It may not have been the NFL, but it certainly wasn’t semi-pro quality. The combination of Spurrier’s daring coaching style and Reaves’ cannon arm helped make everyone in attendance that day a “Bandit Ball” believer.


  1. Did Burt Renolds ever play football at the Tampa Stadium, in Florida.

  2. No, I believe his playing days had ended by the time Tampa Stadium opened in 1967.