By GARY SHELTON
The cornerback lost someone dear to him.
The team gained something worth keeping.
And in between, in the moments when a team picked up a hurting comrade, the Tampa Bay Bucs gave all of us an afternoon to remember.
They found strength in each other, the wounded cornerback and the team that picked him up. It seems like such a small thing, a football game, when you are talking about a loss of life. But we do what we can do, and so the Tampa Bay Bucs gathered around Alterraun Verner and shared their strength. They were a team of relevance, a team of resiliency, a team of unity. And together, they were something to behold.
This was the Bucs as you have only imagined them, a fierce defensive team and an imaginative offensive one, a team with a winning record, a team that can suddenly play with anyone. This is a team of substance, a team of heart, a team of caring. It was a team finding strength in each other through its finest run in years.
In other words, it is the kind of team that Robert Lee Verner would have loved.
ALTERRAUN VERNER HONORS HIS FATHER ROBERT LEE
You probably didn’t know Verner, the father of Bucs’ cornerback Alterraun Verner. You should have. He was another proud father of an accomplished son who died of a heart attack Saturday afternoon. And while he would have enjoyed the win, it wasn’t essential for his love of his son.
And so Verner played. Of course he did. He didn’t think his father would want to be the reason that he didn’t play.
At one point, he intercepted a pass, and moments later was on the sideline on his knees.
“My Dad was my biggest fan,” Verner said after the game, obviously filled with emotion. “He made so many sacrifices for me to get to where I am today and I just know he wouldn’t want him to be the cause for me not to play. That’s why I decided to play. I wanted to honor him knowing all he did to get me to where I am today.
“He was the most caring, loving person that you’ll ever know. I mean, he would talk to a stranger who was standing next to him at a bus stop. He was so caring and loving. He was willing to take his shirt off and give it the person next to him. That’s the person I knew and the person I’m going to cherish. That love and support. That’s the type of man he was.”
Sure, it says volumes about Verner that he declined to take the day off to mourn. He wanted to be there for his teammates, there to honor his father, there to help make a difference. But it also says the world about the Bucs, and the way they felt another man’s pain, the way they were there to console, there to comfort, there to support.
This is the best of the Bucs. A year ago, Kwon Alexander lost his brother, and then, too, the Bucs rallied around him. They had one of their biggest wins of last season against Atlanta that day.
And now this:
“That’s my brother, man,” said Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “Before the game, when I broke it down, I asked the team, Do we break it down to family just to do it? Is it just something we say or do we mean it? They said, ‘We mean it.’ Well when you have a family member down, what are you supposed to do for a family member? Everybody said, ‘pick him up.’ I told them, Don’t be selfish today. Play for the man next to you. We have a brother hurt. Go out there and show him that he does have a family and when he’s hurting he can lean on us. Guys when out there and played like that.”
“I’ve been there. I’ve lost a parent. I told him, Hey, all you can do is play for your dad. And he did. He played his heart out and everybody around him played for him and we got a big win.”
Somewhere in the middle of loss, a team can find itself. The team has now given up three touchdowns in three games. It has beaten two teams in a row who are in the top 10 in the power rankings.
“This is a great team,” said Mike Evans. “Seattle has been one of the best teams in the league for the past four or five years. It’s just a good win overall for this team.”
For a football team, it is often at the end of the season that things start to click, and the next year, that team is very, very good. Perhaps that is starting to happen to this team. Perhaps it is responding to Dirk Koetter, and to Mike Smith, and to Jameis Winston.
Consider this: For six of the past seven weeks, Winston has had a quarterback rating of 93.6 or better.
They suddenly have a running game. They have solid safety play. They have a pass rush. They have one of the finest young quarterbacks in the league. So is it time to take a different view of these Bucs?
“I don’t know,” McCoy said. “I’m going to let everybody decide what they want to do. We know who we are and we know what we’re working to be so we’re just going to keep showing up every day, taking it one meeting at a time, one walk-through at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time. If people want to believe in us, that’s on them. If they don’t, they don’t. But we know who we are and we’re just going to keep working to get better.”
Sounds fair. But for the rest of us, it wasn’t very long ago that some wondered if the Bears game was the Bucs’ last chance to win. Now, they chase a 7-5 record next week in San Diego. If they can get past that, they’ll be firmly in the playoff hunt. Considering this team was 1-3, that isn’t bad.
Regardless, say this about the Bucs. They have something deep inside. They take this talk of family seriously.
Soon, maybe you will take them seriously, too.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has spornamed the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)