Get this: For the 55th Super Bowl coming Sunday, the fates finally brewed a first team ever to play a Super Bowl on its home field, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. That normally would give this rowdy city a peerless cause for teeming streets. But get this: It did just that amid the grinding teeth of a pandemic, a peerless cause for depleted streets. Somehow, a Super Bowl with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes winds up with diminished noise.
So in staple places — the West Tampa Sandwich Shop with its plantain omelet and otherworldly Cuban coffee and thousands of photos, the Power Circle Barber Shop with its vortex of energy and audible ESPN and photos of great Bucs, the impressive 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk with its busts of departed but still remarkable citizens — the locals here in Florida try to sort it out.
“Man, if the pandemic wasn’t here, the city would be …” said Antonio Williams, 32, who spent Thursday night guiding his three sons and nephew through the Super Bowl atmosphere around the river. His pause after the word “be” lent a mental picture of untold bacchanal.
“I think Tampa Bay would be blowing up right now,” said Kara Stout, 37, a lifelong dancer who breakfasted Friday at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop and who appeared in both the halftime show of Super Bowl XXV in Tampa in 1991 (“I was right behind Winnie the Pooh when I came out”) and the pregame show of Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa in 2001 (dressed as sort of a pirate and not so far from Sting).
“The city would be lit,” said Alvin Williams, 47, the barber who works the first of the eight chairs along the wall at Power Circle.
But wait, wait: A disparate feeling romps the minds, as if the long lousiness of the coronavirus somehow has enhanced this moment.
“I feel like it does give a gratefulness,” Antonio Williams said, calling that his prevailing feeling.
“Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s friendly. It seems like everybody’s getting along more,” Stout said.
“Yeah, a lot more meaningful, lord, yes,” Alvin Williams said, saying also: “Everybody’s cheerful. Everybody’s in good spirits.”
That’s all how Bri Walker, working the second barber chair, could say this: “At this point, I don’t think covid is as much a concern as the Bucs going to the Super Bowl. It’s still there. It’s still probably on people’s minds. But it’s in the back of their minds.” And she could say this, also salient: “I just had a newborn on the fifth [of January]. As much as I want to go out and celebrate with everybody and go here and go there, I don’t want to bring anything home to him.”
Antonio Williams could say, “I believe the energy would be way more if covid wasn’t around,” and, “I believe the city alone, the energy is at an all-time high,” and have both feel true. Alvin Williams could revel in his feeling that “we’ve made sports history” but also tell of feeling the need to defend his immune system with good offense — good nutrition and rest — and how that customer over there weathered three weeks of walking pneumonia related to the coronavirus. And Mitchell Reyes, overseeing his wife and 6-year-old daughter on a ride in a popular downtown playground, could say: “You know, it’s terrible. It’s impossible to not think about.” And also: “But definitely still grateful. I would think, in comparison to the rest of the country, we’re still lucky.”
“It just isn’t what it’s supposed to be,” said Patrick Manteiga, who publishes the 99-year-old weekly newspaper his grandfather started, La Gaceta, in the festive urban village of Ybor City.
So here’s the fifth Super Bowl in a city Manteiga knows as well as anybody knows any city. This is where Marcus Allen reversed course and coursed back through the Washington defense like some elegant and noiseless sports car. It’s where Whitney Houston sang and then Buffalo just missed — on a closing field goal try that never seems to get enough mention of its distance (47 yards) and difficulty (high). It’s where Ray Lewis looked boundless as the Giants looked hopeless, and it’s where Santonio Holmes used a fingerbreadth of end zone to make a breathtaking catch.
It’s a Super Bowl, so Super Bowl images rotate on a skyscraper, and the fireworks flare on a Friday night, and the people flock by in mostly masked waves if not the normal unmasked tsunamis. Here come five children who, judging by their jerseys, have the surnames “Brady,” “Brady,” “Brady,” “Brady” and “Brady.” There’s a couple holding hands, a “Brady” and a “Brady.” (They must be married.) There’s a father and two boys, “Brady,” “Brady” and “Evans.” (The last must be a family friend.) Look, a University of Michigan Brady … a New England Patriots Brady … and so many Tampa Bay Bradys.
From the edge of the Gulf of Mexico out at Treasure Island and then across St. Petersburg to the famed strip clubs on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, there’s clearly a Super Bowl. At a resort by the gulf, the electronic marquee rotates a Bucs logo and the promise of karaoke with host Doug at 6 on Friday, and 45 minutes across the metro area one of the strip clubs achieves some celestial hospitality: “Welcome Chiefs Fans.”
A direct-marketing plant hangs a gigantic Bucs banner in St. Petersburg. A yacht neighborhood forms along the river in Tampa, with ample bars on decks. Along that river with its warnings about alligators — pedestrians should watch out — and manatees — boaters should watch for — a yeoman entry of merriment floats by at night: a small boat with lights forming a tiki hut and palm tree and the music just bumping. A stairwell at the crowded NFL Super Bowl Experience holds droves of fans, masked but not distanced, lining up for a photo with the Lombardi Trophy. In the category of flashy stuff that seems to turn up at the Super Bowl, here’s a Rolls-Royce parked outside a becoming riverside development, with people stopping to coo.
Come morning, Bucs flags flap from car window frames. One car has wedged in six. Residents tell of security helicopters, chuffing overhead all week. It’s a Super Bowl.
But it’s not really a Super Bowl, so a Friday night in Ybor City feels like a Friday night in Ybor City. The sidewalks are far from deserted but groan with a bit too much open space. It’s possible to travel the whole Seventh Avenue and spot only one seemingly drunk guy in a Rob Gronkowski jersey, when a normal Super Bowl would feature ample drunk Gronkowskis, long queues of drunk Gronkowskis, drunk Gronkowskis from curb to curb.
An electronic sign tells the times in three parts:
MASKS MUST BE
WORN AT ALL
TIMES IN YBOR
As the songs play along the downtown streets, from a guy on a bike with a machine blaring Michael Jackson’s “Bad” to a riverside food truck playing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” maybe the operative song comes at one of the fan zones around downtown, when the late Avicii’s words still ring out:
“So wake me up when it’s all over.”
A main NFL hotel drive-through sits empty rather than all flashy and aggravating. Valets work from the curb.
Yet there was that local Mark Lufriu, who walked out of the West Tampa Sandwich Shop on Friday morning and said, “I’m in the neighborhood, so I drive around, and the energy is phenomenal.”
What a muddle for all the heads of the 3.2 million at home and the incoming from Kansas City. Manteiga noted how hard it had been to book the Cuban Club venue he oversees, how it got booked for one event last week rather than six months out, how it’s impossible to plan anything nowadays. “You know, I think for many Tampa people, they feel that this isn’t what it should be,” Manteiga said. “They would like to be more joyous. They would like to be around more people.”
They’re in a city unapologetic about vice, a city with a rich history in the making of cigars, a metro area in a five-month swoop with a Stanley Cup title (the Lightning), an American League title (the Rays) and a home team in a home Super Bowl (the Bucs). “What a great year for Tampa Bay as far as sports,” Manteiga said. “And we just haven’t been able to let the hair down and do the party thing this town knows how to do. Tampa’s not a conservative town. This town knows how to party.”
And he seemed to gaze into the future when he said, “We need a mulligan.”