Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Shaun King was born
across the bay in St. Petersburg, but the origin of his football
career can be traced to a small yellow stucco and stone house in
the heart of Tampa. A faded photo of four-year-old Shaun in a
Bucs uniform, holding a football twice the size of his head, is
displayed in this house. A mirror in the bathroom is where his
maternal grandmother, Alberta Williams, taped Bible verses about
poise, maturity and leadership so that the preteen Shaun would
read them while he brushed his teeth. Out front are the
moss-covered oaks from which the adolescent Shaun dangled,
hoping he could stretch himself tall enough to play in the NFL.
This house was also the place where Shaun, fresh from a
record-setting career at Tulane, gathered with his family and
friends to watch the first day of the NFL draft last April.
Early that Saturday afternoon Shaun's younger brother, Cedric,
sneaked out to a pay phone and called the house, pretending to
be Bucs coach Tony Dungy. The family was still laughing about
Cedric's prank when an hour later, in the middle of the second
round, Dungy called for real.
The Kings' house--one of two that the family maintains because
Shaun's mother, Carolyn, an accountant, and his father, Sam, an
assistant pastor and an insurance claims adjuster, work in both
Tampa and St. Pete--is in a neighborhood in Tampa where the
streets are named after species of fish. Each summer as a
teenager Shaun and his friends would form football teams and
play in Nuccio Park for the mythical Fish Bowl title. Who knew
that less than 10 years later King would go from leading the
Perch in the Fish Bowl to helping the Bucs try to reach the
Super Bowl for the first time?
On Sunday, only three weeks after injuries had catapulted him
from third string to first, King led Tampa Bay past the Detroit
Lions 23-16, completing 23 of 37 passes for 297 yards and two
touchdowns in a gut-wrenching battle for first place in the NFC
Central. Now 9-4 after three straight wins with the 22-year-old
King at the controls, the Bucs have the inside track for the
NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and the first-round bye that goes with
It has been 18 years since Tampa Bay stood atop the NFC Central
this late in the season, and not since Doug Williams directed
the offense in the late 1970s and early '80s have the Bucs had a
quarterback who has generated so much excitement. "Shaun King
would never qualify for any quarterback beauty pageants," says
Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. "He's short [six feet],
he's somewhat pudgy [225 pounds], he's not the fastest guy. He's
a good athlete but not a great one. But he's a winner. Whatever
the it is that makes quarterbacks special, Shaun has it."
Backup Eric Zeier was already sidelined with bruised ribs when
starter Trent Dilfer broke his right clavicle during the third
quarter of a Nov. 28 road game against the AFC West-leading
Seattle Seahawks. With the Bucs leading 6-3, King stepped in and
threw a touchdown pass in a 16-3 win. The following week, with
the division lead on the line, he made his first NFL start in a
Monday-night game against the Minnesota Vikings. He threw for
two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory and was so calm in the huddle
that his teammates, who have nicknamed him Smoothie King, had to
ask him to speak up. "I went up to him before the game," says
McKay, "and the expression on his face was the same as it was
before practice back in June."
Dating back to his junior year at Tulane, King has gone 25
months without losing a game he has started. With the Bucs'
winning streak at a team-record six games, he appears entrenched
as the starter for the rest of the season. That's because
against the Vikings and the Lions, King overcame his own
turnovers to engineer fourth-quarter rallies. For the first time
this decade Tampa Bay is winning because of its quarterback, not
despite him. "I thought our defensive line would get to him a
bit more," said Detroit coach Bobby Ross, whose team beat up and
confused Zeier in a 20-3 win on Oct. 31. "[King] has a bright
future in this league."
That leaves the Bucs in a delicate situation. After the season
Tampa Bay has to decide whether to pony up a $4.2 million bonus
to retain six-year veteran Dilfer's rights for the next two
years; if it chooses not to pay, Dilfer becomes a free agent.
"We want to win a Super Bowl, and not too many teams have been
able to do that with a young quarterback," says McKay, "but how
Shaun performs will be one factor in how we deal with Trent."
Against the Lions, King's mix of confidence, leadership and
field vision was nothing short of magical. What do the Bucs
think of King? On Sunday the conservative Dungy turned into an
Arena League coach. Tampa Bay, which entered the game running
the ball a league-high 51.8% of the time, threw 37 passes and
rushed only 19 times. "The game turned into a situation like you
see in basketball," Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Clyde
Christensen said afterward. "A guy gets hot, and you keep
feeding him the ball."
Facing a 16-9 deficit as he trotted onto the field early in the
fourth quarter, King crossed paths with Bucs cornerback Donnie
Abraham, who grabbed him by the arm and yelled into King's face
mask, "It's time. Do what you do."
Unfazed by a 15-yard chop-block penalty that negated a 16-yard
completion to wideout Jacquez Green on the first play, King
obliged with a nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that tied the
game and seized the momentum from Detroit's relentless defensive
front seven. King completed four passes in seven attempts for 64
yards and picked up another 14 yards on a pass interference
penalty. Most significant was the throw King made with Tampa Bay
facing a third-and-17 at its own 28. Going with a play that
wasn't in the game plan, the Bucs lined up in the shotgun and
sent three wideouts on vertical routes. King threaded a laser
among four defenders and into the hands of wideout Reidel
Anthony for a 30-yard gain. "Shaun just has some kind of magic
to him," says Christensen. "He has that Brett Favre thing, where
even if you're down 14 points and it's third-and-15, your guys
believe and their guys are scared."
King, it seems, is unflappable. Before the draft Tampa Bay
worked him out at Gibbs High, which he attended in St.
Petersburg, under ominous skies with gusts approaching 40 mph.
High winds? Nowadays neurotic NFL prospects postpone workouts if
someone breaks wind. "We're all looking around like, Are we
really going to work this guy out in a hurricane?" recalls
Dungy. "Shaun shows up and says, 'I'm ready. I'll work out.
Wherever. Whenever. For as long as you want. I'm ready to play.'
That's just Shaun. Nothing bothers him." Although some of King's
throws sailed into the stands that day, the Bucs walked away
knowing they had found a gem.
Following last Friday's practice, King jumped into his new red
Navigator (license plate: AIR10) and headed to the yellow house
in Tampa, where he's staying until his place in the upscale
suburb of Villa Rosa is completed. On the ride over he popped
The Matrix into his vehicle's three-screen DVD system with
Surround Sound. "I put that movie in for a reason," King said,
watching as he drove. "Keanu Reeves's character is a guy who's
one in a million. He's not even sure yet if he's ready to be a
leader, but people around him can sense he is, and they're ready
to go to war with him. He's the chosen one, the guy who can
change the world. That's what I have always wanted to be like.
That quality caught McKay's eye six years ago when King became
the starting quarterback for the perennially weak Gibbs High
team and threw for 50 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards in his
final two seasons. Still, King, who was recently named the No. 1
high school football player in Pinellas County history by the
St. Petersburg Times, didn't even get a phone call from
recruiters for Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Instead, he
went to Tulane, where he struggled for two seasons until
Bowden's son Tommy was hired as coach in December 1996.
King never really wanted to play for the Green Wave (he almost
backed out on signing day) and was down in the mouth with
passing skills to match in his first two seasons at Tulane.
During spring ball in 1997, however, the new offensive
coordinator under Bowden, Rich Rodriguez, tore King down and
then built him back up. He installed a pro-style offense,
complete with shotgun formation and no-huddle attack. As a
junior King broke most of the Green Wave's passing records and
led Tulane to a 7-4 record, its first winning season in 16 years.
The next year he had arguably the best season by a quarterback
in college football history. He set the NCAA record for passing
efficiency with a 183.3 passer rating. He threw for 3,332 yards
and 36 touchdowns while tossing only six interceptions. By
adding 532 rushing yards, he became the first player in Division
I-A history to hit the 3,000/500 milestone. Tulane went
undefeated for the first time since 1929 and beat BYU in the
Liberty Bowl. Oh, yeah, and King did all that while playing the
final nine games with a cast on his broken left wrist. "I don't
care what society says the perfect quarterback looks like," says
King. "You don't measure someone's will to win with a ruler."
Adds Green Wave assistant coach Frank Celfo, "People say you
need a lot of luck to go undefeated. Well, that's not true. You
need a little luck and a lot of Shaun King."
After the season King played in the Senior Bowl, at which he was
coached by Dungy and his staff. (The consolation prize for the
coaches of the team with the best record in each conference that
doesn't make the playoffs is the Senior Bowl assignment.) Later,
in preparation for the draft, the Bucs put together a tape of
each of King's throws in 1998 and watched in awe as a pattern
emerged. Whenever Tulane needed a big play, King made something
The Tampa Bay coaches and scouts weren't the only ones high on
King. Among others, the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers
and C.O. Brocato, a longtime scout now with the Tennessee Titans
and one of the most respected talent evaluators in the business,
liked what they saw. "Five years from now Shaun King will be the
best quarterback of this bunch," Brocato said before the
passer-rich 1999 draft, during which five quarterbacks were
taken in the first 12 picks.
The last one out of the locker room on Sunday night, King
stopped outside the door for a brief interview with a Japanese
TV crew. "How can you do all this when you are only, what they
say, a rookie?" the reporter asked. "I believe," said King,
referring to his strong religious faith. "I always believe."
King then made his way out of the stadium. Outside he signed
autographs and got a bear hug from Bucs fullback Mike Alstott.
Before getting into his Navigator, he turned around one last
time to soak up a scene he must have been dreaming about since
his days in the Fish Bowl. Behind him a long row of fans wearing
Bucs jerseys and cardboard crowns chanted, over and over, "Long
live the King!"
it," says the Buccaneers' McKay.
"Nothing bothers him," says Dungy.