TAMPA, FLA., AUG. 26 -- Two weeks ago, a familiar scene unfolded on a balmy Saturday night inside Tampa Stadium. A script full of potential for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fizzled into one more summer rerun of football futility.
Their fans had seen this show many times before: New season, new faces, same Buccaneers. So -- with the team's exhibition debut soured by a 31-10 deficit to Cincinnati early in the fourth quarter -- spectators by the thousands responded in traditional Tampa Bay fashion: They left.
On the field below, the man many of them had come to see looked up from the Buccaneers' bench in dismay. Rookie quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the $8.2 million centerpiece of the franchise's restoration project, viewed the exodus as a challenge.
"I saw them walking away," he recalled, "and I said to myself, 'They're going to miss a lot of action.' "
What they missed was a most unusual twist in the Buccaneers' script. In the last 6:18, Testaverde, the 1986 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Miami, threw touchdown passes of 10, 28 and 40 yards. Had Donald Igwebuike's attempted conversion after Testaverde's second touchdown pass not been blocked, Tampa Bay would have sent the game into overtime.
Yet even the 31-30 defeat gave the team, new coach Ray Perkins and the long-suffering faithful a burst of optimism. After a regular-season record of 12-52 the last four years -- including three finishes of 2-14 -- the Buccaneers didn't care that this was just a preseason game, or that the comeback was against defensive scrubs.
They cared that Testaverde, facing the immense pressure of his first night on the job in the NFL, had suddenly shaken the team to life. He certainly caught the attention of the Bengals in only two quarters (16 for 29, 233 yards).
"That cat is a player," said Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth. "On his first play, I said, 'Look at this guy, he looks like a veteran.' It's fun watching him. To tell you the truth, I'm glad he's in the NFC."
"There is a tremendous quarterback over there," said Coach Sam Wyche. "He will pack this stadium."
Testaverde's 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame and his passing rekindled memories of Doug Williams during Tampa Bay's playoff years of 1979, 1981 and 1982. And his presence finally might heal the wounds the club suffered when Williams left for the U.S. Football League in 1983 after a bitter contract dispute.
Ironically, Williams, now backing up Jay Schroeder with the Washington Redskins, will get a chance to see Testaverde first-hand Saturday night in Tampa Stadium when the Redskins (2-0) and Tampa Bay (1-1) meet in a preseason game.
Testaverde didn't provide the heroics last Saturday, when the Buccaneers rallied for a 29-27 victory over the New York Jets. That time, veteran Steve DeBerg completed a touchdown pass with 3:48 to play. But Testaverde still completed eight of 16 passes for 83 yards and also directed a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
That helped the Buccaneers win only their second preseason game since 1983. And Testaverde-mania has been felt all week at the club's ticket office, which has been deluged by long lines for the Redskins game. In fact, on the heels of the 56,598 attendance for the Jets, the Buccaneers could reach the mid-60,000 range Saturday, their biggest crowd since 1982.
Testaverde, meanwhile, has been enjoying life off the field, too. His smiling, tanned face graces newspaper and magazine ads throughout the area as part of a lucrative endorsement deal with GTE. He received a $150,000 powerboat as part of an endorsement contract with a local dealership. He even got a white Corvette from a Chevy outlet to go with the black Jaguar he bought.
But he insists good fortune has not gone to his head.
"I'm just like any other person, except that I play football better than a few other people," he said. "That's the only difference. I still love to go home and visit my family. I still hang out with my old friends from elementary school. We rode tricycles together. I'm just like anybody else who dreamed of doing something -- and I had the chance to go out and do it."
Count Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula as another Testaverde fan.
"I've gotten to know him over the last few years, and he's just outstanding as a player and a person," Shula said. "He's going to make so many big plays just with his great natural ability, breaking away, scrambling and finding a receiver. He's one of the best prospects to come out in a long time."
Perkins enlisted some capable help before making Testaverde the NFL's No. 1 pick in April. He hired former Hurricanes quarterback coach Marc Trestman to supervise the Buccaneers' passing game. Testaverde reported to camp before draft day and has been working steadily with Perkins and Trestman ever since.
What a difference from Tampa Bay's last No. 1 draft choice. In 1986, the Buccaneers picked Bo Jackson, only to have him humiliate them by spurning a multi-million-dollar offer from owner Hugh Culverhouse and opt for baseball. Now, Culverhouse is smiling again.
"I really look at this as a second beginning for this team," he said. "This is a new era."