They'll fire up the grills at daybreak Saturday here in Al Lopez Park, where playoff-hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans will brunch on Bloody Mary's, steak and eggs. Around noon, four planeloads of Washington Redskins fans will descend on charter flights, having paid $499 apiece to cheer on their team in a National Football Conference semifinal game.
Each time the Buccaneers score at Raymond James Stadium, eight cannons explode, spewing smoke from the deck of the giant pirate ship in the north end zone. The 103-foot replica is the showpiece of Tampa Bay's two-year-old stadium, where the Bucs (11-5) have lost only once this season.
"The pirate ship looks like something from Disney World," said Redskins left tackle Andy Heck, who played at the venue while with the Chicago Bears last season. "There are guys dressed up like pirates running all around. You almost feel like you're in some huge production."
Washington's daunting task Saturday afternoon will be silencing those cannons. At stake is the right to contend for the National Football Conference championship against the winner of Sunday's game between St. Louis and Minnesota. If the Redskins and Vikings pull upsets, Washington (11-6) would host the NFC championship game at FedEx Field on Jan. 23. If the Redskins and Rams win, the game would be in St. Louis.
Redskin loyalists have been streaming to Tampa all week. The scene was circus-like in the Gate C-5 lounge at Dulles International Airport, where an oversold crowd waited to board the last direct flight to Tampa Thursday night. A reserved seat on the plane was nearly as prized as a game-day ticket. Holders included businessmen in Redskins ties, retired couples, a harried ticket broker, a dancer who identified herself only as "a star in the exotic world" and former Redskins guard Raleigh McKenzie.
Chatter about the team's chances was nonstop. McKenzie signed autographs and let one fan hold his Super Bowl ring. The dancer doled out reviews of Tampa's hottest nightclubs. "I've always said if I ever stopped dancing," she announced, "I would be a Buccaneer cheerleader." And the ticket broker, one ear glued to his cell phone, took last-minute orders and fielded customer complaints. "We give them the price list!" he groused. "They order them. Then they think they get better overnight by osmosis?"
McKenzie was bullish about the Redskins.
"If they stick to their guns and run the ball, run the ball, run the ball--they're gonna be okay," said McKenzie, a Redskin from 1985 to '94 who now plays for Green Bay. The Packers lost the NFC Central division title to the Buccaneers this season, so that has helped determine McKenzie's rooting interests. "And I still have a soft spot for Washington," he confessed.
Robert Owens of Sterling was first to call when Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder announced the $499 package deal that included round-trip flight, game ticket, Redskins jersey and pregame tailgate party. He bought a pair for himself and his wife. "I'm the one who lives and dies with the Redskins each week," Owens said. "My wife laughs at me. I'm either all the way up or all the way down."
Jennifer Hammond, 19, of Fairfax got her tickets by talent. An art student at Northern Virginia Community College, Hammond won four tickets to every Redskins playoff game, along with $2,000 and a pair of Super Bowl tickets, for designing the best banner for a recent pep rally at Union Station. She has invited her sixth-grade teacher to Saturday's game. As her Super Bowl guest, she hopes to bring her 85-year-old grandfather, who was in the Griffith Stadium stands for the 1940 world championship that the Redskins lost to Chicago, 73-0.
Hammond can't wait to see the pirate ship and hear the cannon explode. She was on the Internet all week, researching Raymond James Stadium, Florida's Gulf Coast and all that she'd see on her first trip south of Georgia. Except for putting the finishing touches on the new banner she and her friends are making, she's all set for the trip.
"Nobody knows us in Tampa, so we're going to go all out and get our faces painted," Hammond said. "It's nice to know Mr. Snyder rented a couple planes so we won't be the only four Redskins fans there. Hopefully, we won't get beat up."
Excitement also is high in football-mad Florida. All three of the state's National Football League teams--Tampa Bay, Miami and Jacksonville--are in the playoffs, and Florida State won college football's national championship earlier this month.
Tampa Ticketmaster sold the game's last 8,000 tickets Tuesday. Those turned away resorted to on-line auction sites, radio-station giveaways and downtown street corners, where brokers commanded several hundred dollars a seat. One ticket-holder got more than 800 responses to his classified ad offering a seat for $1, as long as the female who bought it accompanied him to the game.
When the parties end and the game begins, fans will see an intriguing matchup between teams with opposite strengths: Washington's offense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL, versus Tampa Bay's third-ranked defense.
Tampa Bay is well-rested, having had a bye in the playoff's first round, but the Redskins are banged up. The main concern is running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, who will start despite a sprained right knee and sprained left ankle. If Davis can carry the ball 10 to 15 times--roughly half his typical output--Coach Norv Turner will be thrilled.
It will be tough going against Tampa Bay's defense, led by tackle Warren Sapp, who leads the team in sacks (with 12 1/2) and trash-talking. The Buccaneers' offense is one-dimensional but effective, leaning on a running attack split between hulking fullback Mike Alstott and lightning-fast tailback Warrick Dunn.
"Down South, that's the way the police go around," Redskins cornerback Darrell Green said. "They have one big police officer and one little guy. The little guy kicks you in the heels, and then the big guy grabs you by the neck. That's a great one-two punch: Speed and power. I don't want to face either one of them."
CAPTION: Sarah Davis (with camera), Geraldine Combs, Louise McDonald and Margaret Snider try to provide some divine inspiration in Tampa.
CAPTION: During a telephone call with his counterpart in Tampa, Mayor Anthony Williams states position of his constituents.
CAPTION: Tampa Fire Chief Pete Botto shares his spirit while Mayor Dick Greco trades good-natured jabs with Anthony Williams.