I was an excited little eight year-old on this date 40 years ago – December 16, 1979. My father and I couldn’t wait to hear the Bucs-Chiefs game on 1250 WDAE radio to see whether or not the local NFL team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would make the playoffs for the first time in their short history. (The game was not aired on TV locally, as the game didn’t sell out prior to 72 hours before kick off – so it was “blacked out” here in the Tampa Bay area. The local NBC station that had the rights to the Bucs game aired a Pittsburgh Steelers-Buffalo Bills contest instead.)
Through his job at Publix Super Markets, my Dad had gotten Bucs tickets four times that year – so we saw one pre-season and three regular season games, playing the Rams, Saints (in both the pre-season and the regular season) and the New York Giants.
It was two short years earlier that the Bucs ended the worst losing streak in NFL history, winning a game after losing 26 in a row to start their franchise. By this game the Bucs had won 9 in ’79, more than the seven they had won the first three years combined. After winning five a row out of the gate, the Bucs stumbled in their last three games up until this one. If they could beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, they’d win the NFC Central division and host a playoff game two weeks later. If not, it would be a long offseason – getting so close, only to be so far away.
The weather seemed like something out of a Hollywood script, raining most of the morning heading up to the 1:00 kickoff. The pelting rain turned Tampa Stadium into a water wonderland of sorts, cascading down the stands and turning the field into the bottom of a plugged-in bathtub. Water flew into the air whenever players contacted the ground, or ther cleats dug in to the turf.
Mother Nature also did a good job keeping both teams off the scoreboard – which wasn’t good news for the Bucs. They needed a win and only a win to make it to their Jerusalem – the playoffs. In the fourth quarter, Neil O’Donoghue from Ireland kicked a short field goal to give the Bucs a 3-0 lead, which held up through the final gun.
The one thing that struck me about the game, seeing highlights of it all these years later – was the joy the team had after they had won and locked up the playoff spot. It was almost as if they collectively said, “Thank God we won.”
That ’79 team wasn’t done. They defeated the Eagles in what many thought was an upset at the time, 24-17 – before losing 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship, the game that would have sent Tampa Bay to Super Bowl XIV had they won it. In 1981 and 1982, the Bucs went back to the playoffs, getting kayoed by Dallas each time in their first playoff game each season.
The Bucs wouldn’t see the playoffs again until 1997 – and here in 2019, another renaissance may be at hand.