TAMPA — The sun shined in Micheal Spurlock’s eyes as he stood in the South end zone, just as it had before the game. The wind swirled around Raymond James Stadium, just as it had when he received his practice kicks.
He had thought before the game the wind and the sun might make for a bad combination.
“I thought this might be a terrible day,” Spurlock said.
He was wrong. The sun, the wind and a big crease became the perfect combination for history.
And as Spurlock finished off the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Buccaneers history, he also helped finish off the Atlanta Falcons. The Buccaneers stomped an emotionally reeling Falcons team, 37-3, to claim the NFC South title and a playoff berth.
Bucs running back Earnest Graham had 119 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. The Bucs defense forced four turnovers, including cornerback Ronde Barber’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown on the game’s third play that set the tone for the contest. And as the Seahawks lost in Carolina, hope for the Bucs (9-5) to claim the No. 3 playoff seed remained alive.
But Spurlock became the story for one simple reason — 1,864.
That’s the number of kickoff returns in a row in which the Bucs had failed to score a touchdown, a streak that spanned the franchise’s entire history, 140 different kickoff returners and Barber’s lifetime.
“I never put that in perspective that way,” Barber said. “That’s crazy to think about.”
On No. 1,865, a converted quarterback — and former two-sport athlete at Gentry (Miss.) High School — put an end to one of the league’s most dubious streak. And he did so in a dubious way.
He ran the wrong way.
The Bucs set up a middle left return on Michael Koenen’s kickoff. At the Bucs 20-yard line Spurlock saw wide receiver Michael Clayton throw a block and instead of hitting off him, Spurlock cut right into a crease of nothing but grass and history.
“I thought, ‘Hit it (the hole),” Spurlock said. “Today could be the day.”
The improvisation was stunning considering it was just Spurlock’s 13th career kickoff return. He had never returned a kick before joining Arizona’s practice squad last year as a rookie and didn’t take his first return until the season finale.
He failed to make Arizona’s final roster out of training camp. The Bucs had their eye on Spurlock for a year and snapped him up for their practice squad. But they cut him once and the re-signed him before signing him to the active roster on Nov. 1 to replace Mark Jones.
By the time he reached the 50-yard line, Spurlock had nothing but sideline and Falcons cornerback Lewis Sanders in the corner of his eye.
Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia was now even with Spurlock.
“I just thought he was gone,” Bisaccia said. “I thought it was a helluva hole he ran through. It looked awful big to me.”
Bisaccia always had a sense this could happen with the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Spurlock. Bisaccia met him at Ole Miss where he was the special teams coordinator and Spurlock was a quarterback. Spurlock had obvious talent. He once threw nine touchdown passes in a high school game — and his team lost.
“I tried to get him at Ole Miss as a running back when he first got there, but coach (David) Cutcliffe was bound and determined to keep him at quarterback,” Bisaccia said. “He’s a great athlete. He’s done it now. He’s worked at it and we’ve given him a chance and he’s made the most of it.”
Spurlock then danced down the sideline, at times coming precariously close to stepping out of bounds. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden wasn’t a believer yet.
“I just assumed he would step out of bounds or something would happen,” Gruden said. “I’m being serious. We’ve had opportunities to get close. It’s almost a snake-bitten play for us.”
Bisaccia ran after him as far as he could until he hit his knees. Sanders came close to catching him, but Spurlock, alone with his thoughts, wouldn’t be denied.
“Nothing but thoughts,” Spurlock said. “How far is that end zone? Just let me get to the end zone. There’s no way you can let this guy catch you. If you do, you need your butt whupped.”
Sanders didn’t catch him. No one caught Spurlock until his teammates mobbed him at the Falcons 10-yard line. The crowd erupted as if it was a playoff game. Barber was nearly on the field as Spurlock finished off the return. Injured fullback Mike Alstott was one of the first Bucs to meet Spurlock on the sideline.
And then, release. Bisaccia thought of his father, who passed away two years ago this weekend. Linebacker Derrick Brooks thought that all the whispering he had done to Spurlock about the streak had finally paid off. Graham, who used to work on so many oh-so-close kickoff returns before becoming a full-time offensive player, was kicking himself.
“I was a livid man,” Graham said. “I was upset because I wasn’t out there. I was one of the guys that wanted to be out there when that happened.”
And Spurlock? The young man with the limited resume may now see his No. 17 jersey at the mall.
“My cousin (Mancell Curtis) and I went to the mall yesterday and he asked someone, ‘What, no Spurlock jerseys?’” Spurlock said. “I told him, ‘Maybe if I get one (kickoff) back to the house they’ll get some jerseys in.”
Spurlock’s heroics seemed to fit perfectly into a season where second-stringers, benchwarmers and journeymen pros have had as much to do with winning this division title as the well-heeled veterans.
“We have some great backup players,” Barber said. “That’s why we are where we are right now.”
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.