THE PRACTICE FIELD on which the 1976 Buccaneers first gathered is now a lumpy savanna where untended palmetto trees stand off to the side like backups wearing blown-out Afros. This is the spot where the members of the least talented team in NFL history first looked askance at one other, realizing that the season ahead might not go so well.
The crickets still screech at the heat, and Tampa International Airport still rumbles in the distance. But in '76 there weren't as many trees between the field and the runways, so the players could see the team plane from the practice field. It was a 16-year-old Boeing 720 that had been acquired on the cheap that bicentennial summer by thrifty Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, and it had as many functional flaws as the team it carried.
"There was no AC until after we took off," says Steve Young—not Steve Young the Hall of Fame quarterback, whom the Bucs traded away in '87, but Steve Young the offensive tackle, who didn't so much earn a starting job with the '76 Bucs as get shoved in its general direction. Young, 60, is standing near the plane's old parking spot, now a patch of pines that separates the fallow practice field from the airport. "They figured [the players] were heavier than normal people, so they backed off the air until we were up and cruising."
Former guard Howard Fest, 68, speaking from his drought-stricken property in south Texas, remembers, "We were waiting on the runway one time, burning up, and the pilot goes, 'Sorry folks, but we don't have any oil pressure.' So we wait 30 more minutes for somebody to come look at this oil thing, but nobody shows up.
July 7, 2014
"And then we took off."
Culverhouse had leased the plane from his friend R.P. McCulloch, the ruler of the McCulloch chain saw empire, who ran a tiny airline on the side. Lee Roy Selmon, future Hall of Famer and the rookie prince of that inaugural Buccaneers team, who died in 2011 after having a stroke, once told NFL Films about the first time he saw the name of the chain saw maker on the side of the Bucs' plane: "Right away I was a little worried."
That faulty machine would carry another faulty machine—one that would be shut out five times and outscored 412--125 in a winless 14-game season. In all, more than 140 players would go through Tampa Bay's Tang-colored meat grinder in 1976, in part because of a staggering number of injuries but mainly because you could count on two hands the Bucs who were good enough to play past college. Coach John McKay (all suntan, jowls and jokes, God rest his soul) and chain-smoking general manager Ron Wolf searched high and low for fringe players willing to board their flight to futility. By the end of the season they would hire a 190-pounder nicknamed Psycho off the streets of Watts and start him at linebacker against the world-champion Steelers.
"Back then, expansion teams weren't built the way that Jacksonville and Carolina and Houston were built," says Wolf, now 75 and splitting his retirement between Wisconsin and Florida, the stain of that '76 season erased by the Super Bowl rings he won with Oakland and, more famously, Green Bay. "Free agency and the salary cap weren't around" so the Bucs had to choose from "the last five guys on every team's roster" plus rookies from one of the weakest drafts in NFL history.
"That draft was particularly poor in terms of quarterbacks," Wolf recalls, "because everybody in college was running the wishbone." So Wolf traded three of the Bucs' picks to San Francisco for 31-year-old veteran Steve Spurrier.
I THINK TAMPA paid me $125,000 that year," Spurrier says from his office at South Carolina, where he has become the football program's savior and a social-media muse for a fan base that competes to tweet about how cool he is. (See: #Spurrierswag.) "I had three kids by the time I was 26, so the money came in handy."
The right knee that Spurrier reinjured in '76 while being tossed around like a double-jointed stunt dummy was replaced two years ago, but the 69-year-old grandfather of 12 still works out six days a week during the college season, has been known to go shirtless at practice, and in the off-season supplements his $4 million salary with the contents of his golf partners' pockets.
Teammates from '76 remember their quarterback as just the kind of never-say-die swashbuckler the situation called for. A local favorite from his Heisman-winning career at Florida, Spurrier was eager to prove himself after nine bland seasons in San Francisco and was therefore willing to endure the Groundhog Day punishment of playing quarterback for the Bucs: Take the snap, unload it quickly, get creamed, repeat. Each week he tried to crowbar McKay's hopeless offense forward, and each week after he failed he and his wife, Jerri, would host team parties, secluding the young Bucs from a community that mocked them. "Yep, we had some good parties that year," Spurrier says. "We did some losin', but we didn't do much mournin'."
"With the line we had, Spurrier never had a chance," says Steve Wilson, who started five games at right guard that year and would start 99 more in Tampa after Spurrier's only season in orange. The 59-year-old Wilson is picking at a salad inside Lee Roy Selmon's, a Tampa sports grill named after the defensive end who was Wilson's teammate for nine seasons. Wilson works in the restaurant business himself, as a corporate identity manager for Outback Steakhouse, a job title and a chain that didn't exist the year he was shoved into the Bucs' lineup as a rookie out of Georgia. Wilson's office overlooks the uneven meadow where McKay, who died in 2001 at age 77, flogged him and the other original Buccaneers through an extended training camp that featured full-contact scrimmages in inhumane heat—a regimen that continued well into the season and, to hear the players tell it, had much to do with the beatdowns and injuries they suffered.
At his previous coaching job, USC, "McKay had a dozen All-Americas playing for him," says Louis Carter, whose team-high 521 rushing yards in '76 ought to have earned him his own wing in Canton. "You couldn't run those student body lefts and student body rights in the NFL. Not with what we had. That Green Bay Packers s--- was over."
"Those boys were waitin' on that stuff!" Essex Johnson says at a coffee shop in Carson, Calif., where the dapper 67-year-old former running back manages a real estate business. "You gotta set defenses up. But [McKay] really wanted that USC thing to work. He'd be up in your face about it—linemen, coaches, everybody. C'mon! Get this down. This is supposed to work!"
Instead, a team whose success depended entirely on running the ball finished last in the league in yards per rush (3.5) and rushing touchdowns (five). The Bucs also finished 28th of 28 in scoring offense (8.9 points per game, fourth worst in the modern era), total yards (244.9, seventh lowest) and offensive plays (859). This last stat meant that Tampa Bay's D, already stretched thin, "played two seasons in one," according to just about every defender interviewed for this story.
"My dad told me later in life that he knew he had made a mistake," says Johnny (J.K.) McKay, who started at receiver that year and had his own burdens to bear as the coach's son. "I think he saw early on that it was a more difficult task than he had bargained for."
"The rookies weren't used to playing that many plays per game or that many games in a season," says defensive end Pat Toomay, another of the five players who started every game in '76. "The whole thing kinda caved in on us."
"Three and out?" asks Danny Reece, the cornerback who scored the first touchdown in Bucs history—on a fumble return, in their fourth game. "There were times we would have killed for three and out. A lot of times it was one and out, because the offense would just give it away." Reece limped into his interview, at an aging IHOP near LAX, bent sideways as if in a stiff crosswind. His gait is the result of the battering he took while earning the nickname C.O. Jones (from the Spanish cojones) in honor of his distaste for fair catches.
"I haven't had a bad day on this rock yet," Reece says happily, despite his debilitating knee, spine and shoulder injuries. Reece is the Buccaneer who helps his old teammates schedule medical procedures and fill out paperwork so they can receive benefits they often don't realize they're due. He's also the guy who enjoyed romantic relations with two Bucs secretaries in '76. "But that's a whole 'nother story," he says.
"Castoffs and kids, that's all we had," says Toomay, the bearded sage of the '76 team and one of its few dependable veterans. He had been left unprotected by the Bills that spring, he says, because of The Crunch, the NFL tell-all he'd written the previous fall—"in retrospect," he says, "the kind of thing you write after football, not while you're still playing." Toomay would later write a novel, 1984's On Any Given Sunday. In the late '90s, when director Oliver Stone called Toomay to negotiate rights to the title, he found a lover, not a fighter. Stone's film would make $75 million. Part of Toomay's compensation: He got to play an assistant coach and meet Y.A. Tittle, one of his childhood heroes, on set.
IT WASN'T the first time Toomay had settled for less than the industry standard. The Bucs' plane may have appeared fine from a distance, but inside its cool white flanks it was hot enough to sauté the players in their seats. "[The plane] would sit there all week during practice," Toomay recalls from his writing studio in Albuquerque, "and when we got on board, it would be 200°. This was not motivational."
"Our first regular-season game, in Houston," remembers J.K. McKay, "we had one of those landings where you barely touch down and then take off again because it doesn't feel right. Talk about grown men screaming. That happened a few times that year."
"It was a very different experience from what most players have in the NFL," says Bob Moore, the starting tight end, who had played the preceding five years in Oakland. Yet Moore is not ashamed to have played for the worst team in NFL history. None of the players are. "I don't remember anyone giving up," says Moore, now a prominent trial attorney in San Francisco, "especially at the end, when we were seriously outmanned."
"I learned more that year than in any other," says Mark Cotney, the mustached Marlboro man who started at strong safety for the Bucs from '76 through '84 and who epitomizes the grit beneath all that losing. "We had eight or nine players that year who belonged in the NFL. You had to find a way to still go out there and bust your ass."
Cotney, 62, and his wife, Carol, live in Tampa, near the grown daughters they raised there. Two months ago he became a grandfather. But don't let the soft stuff fool you, warns Danny Reece. "Mark is so tough, he had both of his knee replacements done at the same time."
"That season tore up a lot of good guys," says linebacker Jimmy Gunn, who started 11 games in '76 and lives in Santa Monica, Calif., after years of working as a Hollywood equipment driver. "Lee Roy [Selmon] was a pillar, but I'd say those first two seasons shortened his career." (The Bucs lost their first 12 games in '77 too, and in much the same way.)
"I was always on the phone with my brother, my dad, my wife, before games," remembers linebacker Richard (Batman) Wood, "telling them, 'Say your prayers.' " With help from the six titanium rods that now hold his spine together, Wood coaches linebackers at small-school power Tampa Catholic High, where Jalin Dickinson, grandson of Spurrier's backup, Parnell (Paydirt) Dickinson, plays defensive back. Today Parnell works for the NFL as a uniform official, patrolling the sideline at Bucs games, looking for untucked jerseys and asymmetrical socks. His single season in the NFL (15 for 39, 210 yards, one TD, five interceptions) didn't leave a mark on him, but he is the exception. "That first year felt like two seasons in one," Wood says.
"For me '76 was about showing my durability, showing I could do it for a few more years," adds Council Rudolph, the veteran defensive end who started all 14 games opposite Toomay. Rudolph injured his right hamstring the next year in Tampa, where the 64-year-old still lives, only now his job is infinitely more important: raising his youngest son, who's 17, and caring for his 85-year-old mother.
Dave Pear, the wild-man noseguard who lined up between Rudolph and Toomay and was probably the team's best player in '76, is in worse shape than any of them. He's had at least 12 surgeries on his back and neck, as well as a right hip replacement. When members of that roster are asked, How are you doing? a great many of them reply with some variation of, "I'm still here."
I'm above the dirt.
I'm on the right side of this rock.
Well, the sun came up....
Mike Current, the last of the five men who started every game for those Bucs, couldn't appreciate such simple gifts in his final days. An offensive tackle by trade—and it was a trade to Current, not a talent—the tall, blond, immobile wall of muscle was shown in the NFL Films documentary Birth of the Bucs reclining on one elbow on his motel bed wearing a Broncos T-shirt. (Denver had left him unprotected.) The sunburned veteran vowed with a grin that if Tampa beat the Broncos that fall, he could die happy: "A bolt of lightning could hit me and kill me right in the middle of Mile High Stadium." His roommate, tackle Dave Reavis, chuckled on the other bed.
"Back then you would never have thought that Mike Current was anything other than an upstanding guy," says Reavis, 64, as he drives to an investment meeting in Denver, where he lives.
The Bucs didn't beat the Broncos, of course. In Week 9 Tampa went up 13--10 in the third quarter, but the final score was 48--13, Denver. Afterward John McKay challenged the Broncos' coaching staff to a fistfight and then told reporters, "We just ran out of players."
By 2011 Current had "no quality of life remaining," a friend stated in a police report, due to "diabetes, lung cancer, constant migraine headaches from concussions and other ailments." Listed at 6'6" and 330 pounds on his Nevada driver's license, Current had recently been divorced for the fourth time after three children, all under 14, alleged that he had touched them inappropriately years earlier. That had resulted in five charges of sexual abuse and one felony count of luring a minor.
Around 4 a.m. on Jan. 16, 2012, Current carried a 20-gauge shotgun into an observation building at a federal wildlife refuge near Salem, Ore., sat on a bench, covered his head with a blanket, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Off-duty firefighters found his body after sunrise, a few hours before he was due in court to face the sexual-abuse charges, which carried a possible 30 years in prison.
There was no physical evidence in the case—no penetration or sodomy was alleged—and Current maintained his innocence when two of his three sons flew in to visit him the day before his suicide. Before that last meeting, his sons discussed whether to tell him about the spot the doctors had just found on his lungs. They decided to do so. "When we left him, we knew what he was going to do," says J.T. Current. "We didn't want him to do it, and he didn't say it out loud, but we knew.
"At the end I just think he was tired."
BY MIDSEASON in '76 the players were falling like palms in a hurricane. The Bucs placed 17 players on injured reserve that year, which as far as anyone knows is an NFL record. (Teams averaged 8.4 players on IR in 2013.) "They couldn't bring new guys in fast enough," says Reavis. "It was a fiasco."
Jimmy Sims had played outside linebacker for John McKay at USC in the early 1970s. In December '76, Sims told the St. Petersburg Times that when McKay called him a few days earlier seeking his football services, he was living in Watts, "helping a friend out in his liquor store and watching a lot of television."
"Jimmy Sims was a cowboy," says Batman Wood, a friend and teammate dating back to their days at USC. Born in either Galveston or Kountze, Texas, on either Dec. 18, 1950, or Dec. 28, 1953—no one knows for sure, and an exhaustive search turned up no birth or death record for Sims—the street kid from L.A.'s crime-ridden Locke High once invited Reece, another Trojans teammate, to skip class and "take a ride" with him. To Reece's surprise the drive ended in Bakersfield, where both men rode horses all day.
"He would take me on these long bike rides," says Wood, "all the way down to Newport Beach [100 miles].... Long Beach [50 miles] was nothin'."
But Sims's biggest passion was hitting—it's why Wood, Reece and the half-dozen other USC guys on the Bucs' roster called him Psycho. "I don't remember him that well," says Toomay, a Vanderbilt grad. "I just remember he was small, he was fast, and he didn't give a s---."
When Sims joined the Bucs in Week 13, he was driving a spotless El Dorado. "It was just like the white one Joe Namath had," says Wood, "but Jimmy's was brown." But as cool as Sims could be, friends knew that his switch could get flipped to hot at a moment's notice. At USC, Sims had been giving Reece a ride in his girlfriend's Mustang when he became displeased with the speed of the old lady in front of him and rammed the terrified woman until she sped up. "Off the field is where he had issues," says former USC teammate Charles Anthony. "When you leave here, you leave here—that's the sense you got from him. And he didn't care much about when he might leave."
Twenty-five hundred bucks for two games: That was the deal between McKay and Sims. Two days after the coach called him, Sims boarded the Buccaneers' hazardous team plane and headed to Pittsburgh with his new teammates. The next day he started against the Steelers, who had won the Super Bowl 11 months earlier. Instead of teaching Sims the defense, says 60-year-old Curtis Jordan, a cornerback who outweighed Sims by five pounds, "we just told him to blitz every down."
Sims wasn't even the most overmatched Buccaneer that day. "I'm lining up across from Mel Blount," says J.K. McKay, "and he's 30 pounds heavier than me, twice as fast. I didn't get more than an inch away from him the whole day." The Bucs' defense played 73 snaps that afternoon; their offense managed just 49. The final score: 42--0. Sims finished with five solo tackles—including a stop of Franco Harris for a three-yard loss—and three assists.
Sims didn't start Tampa's last game of the season, at home against New England, as punishment for "having too good of a time [after the game] in Pittsburgh," according to Wood. But he did sack Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan for a four-yard loss. After falling 31--14, the Bucs limped into a players' parking lot populated by campers and trailers and at least one moving van. Everyone was eager to leave town.
Sims's teammates from USC are certain he's dead—so is his ex-wife, Pam, whose Mustang he used to ram that poor old lady. But no one knows when he died, or how. Or where. There are rumors of a craps debt—or was it a cards debt? There's a story about a bar, or an alley behind a bar, and a man with a knife—or was it a gun? But however it happened, or why, a person whose athletic acts once brought 100,000 people to their feet inside the L.A. Coliseum died in utter anonymity.
THE MOST AMAZING thing about the '76 Bucs is how many of them played in the NFC championship game three years later, a 9--0 loss to the Rams at Tampa Stadium. "There were 15 guys on that ['79] team who played for us in '76," says Wolf. "It was an amazing turnaround. Never been done before."
"Three years after that, to come within 10 points of going to the Super Bowl?" asks Steve Wilson, one of those 15. "Coach McKay doesn't get enough credit for that."
Toomay, the pass rusher turned writer who won championships in Dallas (before '76) and Oakland (after), says, "I get more phone calls and fan attention about that one year in Tampa than anything else." Could that be because it was the closest any of us laypersons will ever come to playing in the NFL? Sure, we joke about it on Sundays—Me and you and 20 guys could beat the Browns!—but the '76 Bucs remind us that if us-versus-the-Browns were ever to happen, it would make the 73-snap beating Tampa took from the Steelers seem like patty-cake.
As for the old plane, a recent search, assisted by the FAA and the Boeing Corporation, produced no definitive answer as to where it might be today. But with the help of the McCulloch family and a few frames of old NFL Films footage, the FAA narrowed its search to three Boeing 720s, most likely the one with N7207U tattooed on its rear end. According to an FAA spokesman, that old bird "was retired, scrapped and disassembled for spare parts between '80 and '86."
This news allows us to steer clear of clichés like There's a bit of the '76 Bucs—those lovable losers—in all of us and instead cling to the possibility that a piece of that team has actually helped move us at some point, to a vacation or a meeting or some other success or failure. That's consistent with the end met by a good many of the players the plane carried 38 years ago—men who did not die as much as they were dismembered by life, broken down to their basic parts, so thoroughly in some cases that they were never heard from again.
THE FEWEST WINS IN THE FOUR MAJOR PRO SPORTS SINCE THE '76 BUCS
2008 DETROIT LIONS
QB Dan Orlovsky
2011--12 CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
C Bismack Biyombo
2003 DETROIT TIGERS
C Brandon Inge
1992--93 OTTAWA SENATORS
RW Bob Kudelski
"YEP, WE HAD SOME GOOD PARTIES THAT YEAR," SPURRIER SAYS. "WE DID SOME LOSIN', BUT WE DIDN'T DO MUCH MOURNIN'."
4 SHUTOUT LOSSES / 8.9 POINTS PER GAME SCORED / 29.4 PPG ALLOWED