Monday, October 27, 2008

Ricky Bell Breaks Loose, 10/22/78

On October 22, 1978, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off against the Chicago Bears in one of the most meaningful games in team history. The Buccaneers, coming off a 2-12 season in 1977, found themselves with a 3-4 record and in an improbable three-way tie for second place with the Bears and Vikings.

Much like today, concerns with the economy clouded the week leading up to the game as the Dow Jones Industrial average suffered a 59 point loss, the worst week in its 93-year history. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay hoped to reach the .500 mark for the first time in their three-year history.

No one Buccaneer entered the game featuring more scrutiny than running back Ricky Bell. The team's number one selection in the 1977 draft, Bell faced criticism early in his career from Buccaneer fans, who mostly lamented the fact that his name wasn't Tony Dorsett. The Buccaneers selected Bell ahead of the highly touted Dorsett, and fans resented the success Dorsett enjoyed with the Dallas Cowboys while Bell struggled as a rookie in Tampa.

Bell had his chance to shine against the Bears, however, due to a season-ending injury to starting fullback Jimmy DuBose. The hometown fans gave him a less than warm welcome during the player introductions and saved their loudest boos for the second-year back.

"Nobody has to boo me," Bell said following the game. "I boo myself more than anyone else."

Thanks in large part to Bell, the largest crowd ever to see a game at Tampa Stadium -- over 68,000 strong – quickly turned their boos into cheers.

Tampa Bay jumped on top of the Bears early, as Cedric Brown intercepted Bob Avellini's first pass attempt and returned the ball 29 yards to the Chicago 19 yard line. A 17-yard completion by rookie quarterback Doug Williams to Morris Owens on third down set up Tampa Bay at the two. Bell capitalized two plays later with a one-yard plunge to give the Buccaneers a 6-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Avellini put Chicago back on top with a 34-yard touchdown pass to James Scott to give the Bears a 7-6 lead. The Buccaneers, behind the strong arm of Williams, quickly staged a comeback. A five-play, 38-yard drive culminated when Jim Obradovich made a leaping catch of a Williams pass in the corner of the end zone to put Tampa Bay ahead, 13-7.

The Bears added a field goal as the quarter wound down and the Buccaneers took a 13-10 lead into the locker room at the half.

Chicago regained the lead on the opening drive of the second half. The Bears marched 71 yards on eight plays, sparked by a 30-yard Avellini pass to Walter Payton. Roland Harper capped the drive with a two-yard run to give the Bears a 16-13 lead. The rest of the afternoon would belong to Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers answered back with a time-consuming drive that covered 72 yards on 11 plays. Wide receiver Morris Owens got into the act with key receptions of 12 and 13 yards, while Bell – who finally had room to run – contributed with 20 yards on the ground. Williams called his own number to cap the drive with a one-yard run, putting Tampa Bay in the lead, 19-16.

Williams struck again in the fourth quarter as his team nursed a three-point lead. On third-and-four from the Chicago 40, Williams targeted a streaking Owens, who out-raced safety Gary Fencik. Without breaking stride, Owens made a terrific over the shoulder catch in the end zone for the score. Trailing Tampa Bay 26-16, the Bears added a 27-yard field goal by Bob Thomas to make the score just a one touchdown deficit.

With just a seven point lead late in the game, the Tampa Bay defense stepped up at a crucial time. For a stadium full of anxious fans, linebacker Dave Lewis made a huge play at just the right time. With the Bears poised to embark on a game-tying drive, Lewis intercepted Bears quarterback Bob Avellini at the 20 and returned the ball to the seven yard line. A personal foul moved the ball to the three, and it took just one offensive play for Tampa Bay to ice the game, as Johnny Davis ran the ball in to give the Buccaneers a 33-19 victory.

Overall, the Buccaneers produced -- to that point -- one of their finest offensive days in team history. Doug Williams provided a glimpse into his talented future by completing 73 percent of his passes and throwing two touchdowns. Additionally, the 33 points matched the most scored in team history, and the most ever put up by the home team at Tampa Stadium. And then there was the performance by Ricky Bell.

Bell dazzled with 95 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown, while hauling in three receptions for 45 yards to cap his day. Head Coach John McKay remarked after the game that the pre-game jeers by the crowd served to motivate Bell. After the game, Bell said that he would remember this game as a career turning point.

"No one likes to be teased like that," Bell said. "But, hey, fans are easy to win back. Sometimes you can't listen to what everybody else has to say. You just have to believe in yourself."

Bell was awarded the game ball for his effort against the Bears. Classy to the end, Bell then awarded the ball to the fallen teammate he replaced in the lineup, Jimmy DuBose. Acts of kindness like those off the field, in addition to his heroics on the field, would soon endear him to Buccaneer fans for the remainder of his all-to-brief career.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Martina Wins at Innisbrook, 10/16/83

In 1983, Martina Navratilova had one of the greatest single seasons in any sport. That year, she dominated women's tennis with an astonishing record of 86-1, winning 16 of 17 tournaments.

Near the end of that record season, Navratilova played at the Florida Federal Tennis Open, seeking her second tournament championship there in three years. The tournament was from Oct. 10-16, 1983, and held for the first time at the Innisbrook Resort in Tarpon Springs after seven years at East Lake Woodlands in Oldsmar.

While singer Bonnie Tyler owned the October airwaves with her hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Navratilova totally eclipsed all others in her sport. To say she arrived in the Tampa Bay area on a roll is an understatement.

Navratilova entered the tournament having won 67 of 68 matches and capturing every tournament she entered except the French Open, where she lost in the fourth round to Kathy Horvath. The Florida Federal was her first tournament since early September, when she won the U.S. Open for the first time, finally completing her Grand Slam resume.

Navratilova had such an air of invincibility that many opponents admitted nobody on the tour could even challenge her. She didn't seem to disagree, saying, "If I don't beat myself, I don't think anyone else can beat me."

Prior to the U.S. Open final against Chris Evert, Pam Shriver said, "Chris is the only one who hasn't conceded to Martina's invincibility. If she gets blown out (in the final), all hope is gone." Navratilova routed Evert, 6-1, 6-3.

Winning the U.S. Open was a career turning-point for Navratilova, who finally shed the stigma of never winning in New York. "There was no monkey on my back," she said. "It was an orangutan."

Navratilova's week in Florida got off to a slow start, however, as her first round match against Peanut Louie was delayed by rain. The postponement was the tournament's first since a quarterfinal match in 1980 featuring Tracy Austin. In this case, the delay must have only served to make Louie feel like a prisoner on death row awaiting a stay of execution that would never come.

Navratilova toyed with Louie in a 6-1, 6-1 blowout that took only 43 minutes. Most cruelly of all, Navratilova decided to unleash her newest weapon – a kick serve -- against the severely overmatched Louie. "It's like a pitcher with new pitch," Navratilova said.

Her next opponent was Wendy White, who had made her mark as a collegiate champion at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. White played admirably and fared significantly better than Louie, keeping Navratilova on the court for 85 minutes. Along the way, she managed to register three service breaks in a 6-3, 6-2 loss. After the match, Navratilova praised her opponents' performance. "

That's one of the best matches anyone's played against me in a long time," she said.

Another rain delay postponed Navratilova's quarterfinal match against Bonnie Gadusek by a day. The seventh-seeded Gadusek -- a resident of nearby Largo -- put up a strong fight early, battling to even up the score at 5-5 in the first set by applying pressure on Navratilova.

She had a plan and she knew what she wanted to do," Navratilova said. "She came in (to the net) when I didn't expect her to."

As expected, however, Navratilova regained control, winning the first set 7-5, and put away the match, 6-3, in the second set.

Yet another rain delay forced Navratilova into double-duty Saturday with a semifinal showdown against Zina Garrison. Showing no signs of fatigue, she easily handled Garrison, 6-3, 6-2. Waiting for her in the finals was friend and doubles partner Pam Shriver, who had lost 16 of 19 career matches against Navratilova.

Despite their close relationship, Shriver struggled to find an edge against her opponent. Her strategy featured a serve-and-volley attack, which seemed to play into Navratilova's hands. Taking advantage of the slow clay surface, Navratilova had ample time to send top-spin backhand winners past the charging Shriver. Her service game didn't fare much better in the second set, as she dropped all but one point over the course of four service games.

Shriver's best move of the day came after the 6-3, 6-2 defeat, when she jokingly dumped ice cubes down the back of Navratilova's shirt during the trophy presentation. Fittingly, the friends teamed up later in the day to win the doubles title with a 6-0, 6-1 pasting of Gadusek and White to wrap up the tournament.

These titles would be Navratilova's last at the Florida Federal Open, as 1983 marked the final appearance of her Hall of Fame career at the tournament.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Catching Up With Phil Esposito

With the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs for the first time ever, the Tampa Bay area has finally been able to enjoy meaningful baseball games at The Trop in October. It’s hard to believe, but 15 years ago this month The Trop was the newly rechristened ThunderDome, ready to serve as the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After playing their first season at Expo Hall in Tampa, the Lightning embarked across the Bay to make a new home in a stadium built for baseball. I recently sat down with Lightning founder Phil Esposito to discuss how hockey first came to be played at the Dome.

Q. How did the first pre-Lightning exhibition game come about?

A. Well, before we could get a team, my partners (Henry Paul, Mel Lowell) and I decided we would have to put on an exhibition game for the NHL. I'll never forget going over to (what was called at the time) the Florida Suncoast Dome for the first time. I remember looking around and thinking, "How in the hell are we going to get ice in here, and where are we going to put the rink?" So the guy who was running the place at the time – I can’t remember his name, but he was a real nice guy -- asked us if a tennis configuration would work. Absolutely it would, I told him. I remember we put the yellow police tape all the way around the floor, and then we marked it off and went to the top corners of the dome to make sure people could see the rink from all angles.

Q. You chose two high-profile teams -- the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins -- to play in the exhibition game on Sept. 19, 1990. How did you pull that off?

A. I called Los Angeles, which was run by their former goaltender, Rogie Vachon. I asked if they'd come play an exhibition game in Florida. They wanted to know where, so I said in a baseball facility in St.
Petersburg. Rogie said fine, but with if we wanted Wayne Gretzky to come it would cost us $150,000. I said, "Come on Rogie, $150,000 is too much. I can't afford to give you that." He told me that's what we get when Wayne plays, but that they could come without him.

Well, the point was to have Wayne because we knew the place would be packed for people coming to see him. Eventually he said that they'd do it for $100,000. Then I decided that I wanted to get Mario Lemiuex with Pittsburgh, so I called their general manager, Craig Patrick. I intended to pay them the same amount. I asked Craig if they'd come, but that Mario's gotta play. We wanted to charge the first row $99 and the second row $66 to honor Wayne and Mario. Craig asked me why I was doing that. He said it would look like Wayne was worth more money and Mario wouldn't like it. I remember saying to him, "Yeah, so what's your point?" Little did I know, he had no intention of bringing Mario.

So I told my partners that if Mario doesn't come, I'm not giving Pittsburgh $100,000. Mario ended up not coming, so after the game we only gave them a check for $70,000. Craig asked me what happened to the other $30,000, and I said to him, “That was for Mario to come.” He said that's not right, but I told him I don't care. What was he going to do to me? But, that's why when we got the Lightning, we could never get the Penguins to play us in an exhibition game. They wouldn't do it.

The bottom line is it cost me -- and I put all the money up, every penny I had in my life -- $500,000. People wondered why I wanted to do this, but we had to show the NHL that we could draw a crowd. And it turned out to be a huge success. We drew over 25,000 that night. The game was fabulous. Afterwards, Wayne showered up and went over to our corporate tents that we had set up in the outfield. He signed autographs, talked to people, and told me, "Phil, anytime you need help here, anything you need, you call me. I'll be glad to do what ever I can to help you get a franchise." I'll never forget that. He was so good to us it was ridiculous.

Q. The team announced it would be moving to St. Petersburg in July of 1993, which only allowed for a few months to get the stadium hockey ready. What were some of the challenges?

A. It happened real fast. We had to do something about the upper deck to get people up there. Then we wanted to put some corporate tents in centerfield, a place where kids could kick field goals, play floor hockey, maybe do some miniature golf, make it fun. You know a lot of kids came to the games, but never even watched the game. That was great for the parents because all they'd pay is $5 to get them in the door. It worked out fine.

Q. Was it hard leaving the Fairgrounds behind?

A. I liked the Fairgrounds, and the fans loved it. I thought it was so much fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There were only 10,000 seats, so everyone was on top of the action. The reality was we couldn't afford to play there. Who knows what would have happened if we had stayed? If we didn't go to the Dome, we may have never gotten a new building in Tampa. The move to St. Pete made the city of Tampa stand up and say, "We want you to play here in Tampa." We were negotiating with St. Pete to put a new building south of the Dome, at the other end of the main parking lot. I really thought we should have built in the Gateway area, so it wouldn't be such a long commute for everybody.

I’ll tell you though, the atmosphere at the ThunderDome was unbelievable. I don't know if it's the acoustics because of the roof, but in 1996 when we won that playoff game in overtime, I've never heard anything so loud in my life. Not even when we won the Stanley Cup. If they'd never gotten a baseball team or we never got a new building, it wouldn't have bothered me one iota to have stayed in that building. We'd have reconfigured it as a circle and put in new seats ourselves. I was pretty content there, but I knew we had to get a new building because the league insisted on it. That was the only way we the Lightning, and the sport of hockey, could survive in this area.

Q. Do you have fond memories at the Dome?

A. The crowds were terrific. Opening night against the Florida Panthers we set the indoor attendance record for the NHL with over 27,000 fans. We finally made some money that season. I have to give David LeFevre (former Lightning governor) this. He wanted to charge a $99 season ticket for upper deck seats. I loved the idea. We found out later those people were spending $24-30 per game in concessions. And to this day, people tell me they had more fun at the Dome than they knew what to do with. I think being over there those few years really helped grow hockey in this area.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, 10/7/68

On October 7, 1968, the city of Tampa nearly went into sensory overload. Reigning Miss America Judith Anne Ford of Illinois arrived to participate in the annual Fire Prevention Parade. For those more interested in politics than parades, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, made a campaign appearance at the Sheraton Tampa Motor Inn. And for those more interested in punches than politics, professional boxing made its long-awaited return to Tampa after a three-year absence.

Headlining the card at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory was one of the best boxers to never hold a major title, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. The 35-year-old fighter arrived in Tampa with a career mark of 69-6-1, including 54 knockouts. One of his most notable bouts was two years earlier, when he faced Muhammad Ali at Houston's Astrodome for the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Williams, a 5-1 underdog in the bout, was knocked out by Ali – who was nine years younger and in his prime -- in the third round. Williams' former manager, Lou Viscusi of Lutz, arranged for Williams to fight Mose Harrell of St. Petersburg, a relative novice with a 16-3 career mark. The bout essentially amounted to another tune-up in Williams’ comeback attempt to re-climb the heavyweight ladder and earn another chance at the title.

After his defeat to Ali, Williams had won four straight bouts against fighters with losing records. A victory over Harrell could have meant eventual shots at heavyweights Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis. The 21-year-old Harrell, who recorded a 27-2 mark as an amateur, had a lot to gain with a victory as well. Defeating Williams would launch Harrell right into the mix of heavyweight contenders. Despite their size difference – Williams outweighed Harrell by 21 pounds -- his own manager, Walt Profitt, felt confident going into the fight, saying, “I think he’ll knock Williams out.”

That night at the Armory, Harrell found out how difficult that would be to do. In front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 800 spectators, Harrell struggled to withstand blows from the larger and stronger “Big Cat,” who was once described by Sonny Liston as the hardest puncher he ever fought. Despite suffering an injury to his left arm while training in Houston earlier in the week, Williams battered Harrell with steady body shots throughout the fight. Harrell’s quickness on the mat kept Williams from getting a knockout blow through the early rounds, but the dancing came at a cost.

In the fourth round, Harrell suffered leg cramps that limited his movement for the rest of the bout. His time would run out against Williams at 2:26 in the seventh round when a series of combination rights, climaxing with a wicked uppercut, dropped him to the mat for good. With the victory, Williams passed Joe Louis for all-time knockouts with his 55th such decision.

Unfortunately for the “Big Cat,” he would never return to prominence in the heavyweight division. Defeats in four of his next five fights effectively ended his title ambitions, although he continued to fight against mostly journeymen boxers before retiring in 1972. He ended his career with a 78-13-1 mark, and tragically died in 1999 at the age of 66, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.