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Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Best Game I Ever Saw Live: That Funny Little Thing

Editor's note: this article is part of alligatorSports' "Best Game I Ever..." series. To find the rest of our articles, visit this page.

Hope is a funny thing, isn’t it?

How we latch on to it at any given moment. Even when there hasn’t been anything to look forward to, we can always hope. And sometimes, despite the fact that gloom has prevailed time and time again and history tells us not to get burned by it, we still find ourselves with a sliver of it.

On Nov. 27, 2016, I felt hope. And as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, I don’t feel it often.

The Buccaneers had won two games in a row and were set to defend Raymond James Stadium against the then-7-2-1 Seattle Seahawks. They were one of the best teams in football, and so when I hopped in my mom’s car and we drove to that game from our house in St. Petersburg, I certainly didn’t think we were going to topple the juggernauts from Washington, even on our home turf.

And then Mike Evans scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, one from three yards out and one from 23 yards out when he burned Richard Sherman on a lob pass. The Seahawks responded with a field goal and a safety, bringing the score to 14-5.

Seattle looked to get some points before halftime, but cornerback Alterraun Verner, who was starting in the game two days after his father had died, picked off quarterback Russell Wilson at the end of the half to ensure that the Seahawks would go back to their locker room without a hurrah. 

It was the best game Tampa had played all year up to that point. I had hope, but in the second half, a drop of doubt seeped into it like poison.

The Bucs offense was struggling. It wouldn’t put any more points on the board, and every three-and-out left one of the most dangerous teams in the league more time than it needed to start a comeback, something I’d seen far too many times in the Bucs games I’ve attended as a season-ticket holder.

But this time was different. 

The defense played lights-out in the second half. Safety Bradley McDougald (who would be a Seahawk the following year) picked Wilson off again. During what looked to be a promising fourth-quarter drive, linebacker Lavonte David scooped up a fumble and returned it for 53 yards. Tampa Bay’s offense may have stagnated, but Seattle’s had been stifled entirely.

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The score didn’t move from there. Once the clock hit zero, the Buccaneers had defeated the Seahawks 14-5. The win bumped them up to a winning record (6-5), and they had won three consecutive games for the first time in three years. I’ll never forget the fervent cheers of “Tampa… Bay!” in the stadium as both teams trotted off the field, or how they continued as we walked down the ramp and into the parking lot.

Even on the way home, I think my mom and I threw a few chants out here and there amongst the cadence of the post-game radio show.

The success wouldn’t last. After winning the next two games to move up to 8-5 and possibly a playoff spot, the Bucs lost the next two and all but eliminated themselves by the time they won their last game against the Panthers to end with a winning record.

It would eventually deteriorate and collapse, like all Bucs seasons tend to do. But for one night as I walked down the ramp of Raymond James stadium and I let the chants run through my ears like a symphony, I felt that hope.

Despite everything I’d known. Despite the past. Despite the fact that I shouldn’t have been, I was grinning wider than I’d ever been at a football stadium. For the first time in my memory, Raymond James had come alive.

Hope is a funny thing.

Isn’t it?

Follow River Wells on Twitter @riverhwells. Contact him at rwells@alligator.org.

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