TAMPA, FLA. – Greetings from “Tompa Bay.”
New England Patriots fans can roll their eyes all they want at that nickname, which was adopted when Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year -- or the updated version of “Champa Bay.” But proof was evident all around Raymond James Stadium last night that the pun is widely accepted and highly accurate.
From the sea of Brady jerseys in the stadium, to Brady connecting with Rob Gronkowski on a pair of touchdowns, to the Super Bowl Champions signage and, of course, the Lombardi Trophy.
There was also a Brady-orchestrated drive that set up Ryan Succop’s game-winning 36-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to give the Bucs a 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener.
The 44-year-old Brady, in what was the first game of his 22nd season and his NFL record 300th start, completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. After the Cowboys took a 29-28 lead on Greg Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal, Brady received the ball back with 1:24 remaining and one timeout.
He led an 11-play, 57-yard drive that included a 24-yard completion to Chris Godwin along the sideline with 18 seconds remaining to set up the winning field goal. It was the 49th fourth quarter or overtime comeback win of Brady's career.
"I've been playing a long time," Brady said after the game. "That's a lot of football."
It was the first time a capacity crowd in Tampa Bay got to watch Brady play football as a Buccaneer. He didn't disappoint those who were fortunate enough to land a ticket, something that’s not so easy to do in Tampa Bay these days thanks to the Brady Effect.
The Bucs, a team that not so long ago had difficulty filling their 65,000-seat stadium, now have a wait list for season tickets. From general admission to luxury suites, all tickets for the 2021 season, which is being played in front of a capacity crowd, are sold out and in the possession of existing or new season-ticket holders.
When Garrett Miller of Satellite Beach, Fla. first heard rumors of Brady joining the Bucs, he quickly purchased season tickets. Brady signed with the team three days later.
“It’s changing the culture of the team here,” Miller said of Brady’s arrival. “For so long after the Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy years, we kind of went through this lull and malaise with the team itself and just struggling to be relevant in the league. Brady brought that instant credibility to the team. He brought that instant discipline and drive and work ethic that we really needed.”
As for tickets to Thursday’s game on the secondary market, you didn’t exactly have to be making Brady-like money to afford some, but a pair of tickets were going for a small fortune.
When the greatest quarterback of all time delivers a championship and fans are itching to get back into the stadium after a season away to show their appreciation, it’s good for business at the box office.
“Obviously at the beginning you didn’t really know, just because he’s been successful somewhere else, is he really going to change the culture here and change the success level?” said two-year season-ticket holder Bill Wagner of St. Pete Beach. “But once you started to see it, especially right after the Kansas City Chiefs game, after that it was like win, win, win, win, win. Everybody became a believer. Everybody now has totally bought into the idea that this is a championship-level franchise at this stage of the game.”
Longtime Bucs fan and two-year season-ticket holder Neal Miller of Deltona, Fla. called the atmosphere in Tampa Bay a “party” that fans had been waiting years for. One that Brady ultimately threw.
“Down here, I mean back 20 years ago was Tampa was trying to climb the mountain, they couldn’t get there,” Miller said. “But once they got Brady in, they started bringing other people in, he was the last piece of the puzzle.”
Five-year season-ticket holder Nancy Perkins of Seminole, Fla. said she was unable to sleep the night before Thursday’s game.
“I was like ‘Yes, we get to go to the game!’ she said. “I was totally pumped.”
As were many other fans tailgating in the parking lots before the game, most with Brady jerseys on their backs.
Brady trailed only Patrick Mahomes for the top-selling jersey in the NFL last season, per the NFL Players Association. Fanatics announced on Thursday that since August 1, Brady has the third top-selling jersey, trailing Josh Allen and Mac Jones.
Derek Barber of Norton, Mass. -- a Patriots fan and season-ticket holder at Foxboro -- flew to Tampa to attend Brady’s season opener. With mixed emotions and his love divided, he wore a Brady jersey that was half Bucs and half Pats.
“Obviously, the guy brought us like the best 20 years of our lives,” Barber said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s like I root for him and against him. If he won, we were happy because it’s Brady and Gronk and it’s like ‘Screw you, Belichick!’ But if he lost, I probably would have been like, ‘Ahh, you only win with us.’”
That wasn’t the case for Brady and the Bucs last season. It wasn’t the case on Thursday. And that’s why Bucs fans who never really had a franchise quarterback to call their own are now proud residents of “Tompa Bay.”
“Growing up it was the Vinny Testaverde of the world, and then we had a little Jeff Garcia phase, and going through all the random quarterbacks here and there,” Miller said, pointing out all of the Brady jerseys outside the stadium. “[Brian] Griese and [Chris] Simms and Jameis Winston…Kind of going through all that stuff. We won a championship with Brad Johnson! So, having Tom Brady and seeing the 12s here and not in New England is weird, but it’s great.”