One of the first times I heard the word "nigger" spoken with feeling by an adult, I was at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game. This was in 1980 or '81, and Doug Williams was the quarterback and the target of the slur.
He had just thrown a bad pass, which, according to the redneck sitting in the row behind us, warranted punishment that probably included lynching.
"Stupid nigger," he had said.
I felt my face grow hot as my mother turned and stared at the guy until he mumbled an apology.
It turns out that Williams received much worse treatment than that from Tampa fans. After he continued his career elsewhere, eventually leading the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII, he told stories about how he received death threats after Buc losses. Someone even sent him a gift-wrapped present, which, when opened, was revealed to be a rotten watermelon.
Today, Williams claims he harbors no grievances towards Tampa and its citizenry.
"I mean, I got my share of letters from down there," he says on the phone from his home in Ruston, La., "but I think the majority of the people in the stands weren't on the negative side. It's always a small minority that makes the most noise -- a couple of bad apples making it bad for the good ones."
Williams' stint in Tampa took place around the same time that the city's chamber of commerce adopted the slogan "America's Next Great City." It was a fine, if bizarre, title, signifying the dual images of Tampa, straddling the fence between old-guard leanings and new-world possibilities. Soon, the slogan was painted on signs around town, including ones at Tampa Stadium where Williams' Bucs played.
But it was a classic case of premature hype. Citizens -- myself included -- expected Tampa to become the New York City of the South overnight, race issues and a serious lack of skyscrapers notwithstanding. Those dreams were only stoked when Tampa hosted its first Super Bowl in 1984.
The game was as much a debutante ball for the city as it was a romp by the Los Angeles Raiders over the Washington Redskins. Here was Tampa, town of a few hundred thousand, putting on a party for the entire sporting world, beaming with sunshine and palm trees and sparkling waters, ready to start dating the international elite.
Never mind the skeletons in the closet. Optimism overflowed. I went to that Raiders-Redskins game, too, and I remember hearing someone gush, "The Olympics are next!"
Then a realist spoke up. "Yeah, right."
Tampa sits on Florida's West Coast, tucked inside the bay that bears the same name. Hurricanes skirt past occasionally, dousing the place in much-needed rain and leaving behind broken tree limbs and flooded streets.
But it's been a while since a storm caused major damage here.
Tampa used to be a cigar-making center, a phosphate center and a shipbuilding center, but those industries have all faded. Today the city of 300,000 (a million live in its greater urban area) has become home to a huge business service-center community. Customer service call centers have moved here in the last 10 years or so, with large companies like Chase, Capital One and magazines under the AOL Time Warner umbrella such as Time, Sports Illustrated and Fortune.
Banking has also grown substantially in the last 10 years, with First Union and Bank of America the biggest players.
And, of course, there's always tourism, an industry that will expand in the coming years thanks to a renovated Port of Tampa that will cater to cruise ships.
The population that battens down the hatches is a stew of Americana. Tampa's got your standard white businessmen in places of power, but it also has long-established African-American, Italian and Latin communities that flavor the region with festivals, fine cigars and food. The mayor of the town, Dick Greco, is of Italian and Spanish heritage.
In other words, saying Tampa is a racist place because of the Doug Williams affair is like judging the voting competence of the entire state of Florida by the standard of Palm Beach County. You just hope it's really not that bad.
Tampa is like a kid on "The Real World." Young and lacking identity, when it first appears on camera its callowness is painfully apparent. Its hair is a bird's nest, it says stupid things and it can't quite get rid of that zit on its chin. But by the last episode, it's coifed and poised, ready for its close-up.
As Tampa prepares for its third Super Bowl, there's no denying that it has grown up a lot.
For instance, there's the story of Gasparilla, a Tampa celebration that was started back in 1904 and has blossomed into an event that could soon rival Mardi Gras.
The event, which starts in the morning and ends in the late evening, is a loony tribute to a fictional pirate named José Gaspar. Grown men dressed as pirates invade Tampa Bay in a flotilla of hundreds of boats, including a big ship called the José Gasparilla, firing blanks from their flintlock pistol replicas. Once they dock in Tampa, they follow giant, expensive floats, marching down scenic Bayshore Boulevard. Most of them are deeply pickled by this point, and they toss bead necklaces and Gasparilla coins to a screaming crowd of tens of thousands lining the parade route. The whole thing ends up in Ybor City, the center of Tampa's nightlife, where everyone flashes each other in exchange for more beads and coins and then collapses in a drunken, delirious heap.
In short, it would seem to be the perfect event for a town to promote when the weeklong party of the Super Bowl comes to town. But in 1991, Gasparilla was at the center of a controversy that turned into a painful lesson of acceptance and diversity, and on a larger scale, an example of community group therapy.
It was the 25th anniversary of the Big Game, the Persian Gulf War was flashing on TV screens and everyone was worried that the Iraqis were going to fire Scud missiles at Tampa Stadium, which housed the contest between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. It didn't happen, and the game ended with the Giants' 20-19 victory when the Bills' Scott Norwood kicked wide right.
Lost in all the excitement was the fact that Gasparilla, which was scheduled to take place the day before the game, had been cancelled for the first time since World War II.
The reason: Ye Mystic Krewe, a club of businessmen and community leaders that had headed the Gasparilla celebration since it began, was catching flak because the St. Petersburg Times had pointed out, shortly before the Super Bowl, that it was an all-white-guy fraternity. This was not a healthy image for a town that Doug Williams had previously ripped in the media.
The reaction to the story was impassioned. African-American community leaders called for a more diverse Gasparilla. Ye Mystic Krewe said it had nothing against blacks, but sorry, they weren't going to start admitting new people just because the Super Bowl was coming. As the stink grew repulsive with the game approaching, Ye Mystic Krewe pulled the plug on the annual pageant.
Guy King III, a local businessman and respected community leader who has been a member of Ye Mystic Krewe for 25 years, says his social group was unfairly targeted by the media.
"There were outside forces trying to change an institution that was already changing," he says. "It was going to change, but it was going to change in its own good time."
Observers of krewe politics had a different opinion.
"That was hilarious," says Tim Dorsey, a Tampa-based author who wrote the crime novel "Florida Roadkill." Dorsey was working at the Tampa Tribune at the time of the 1991 P.R. snafu, and thought Ye Mystic Krewe deserved the negative press it received.
"You know how they say the poor man wants to be rich and the rich man wants to be king?" Dorsey says. "That's what they do. They get together and pretend they're royalty.
"What self-respecting person would want to join these groups, you know?" Dorsey says.
Actually, it turns out, a lot of people. The '91 Super Bowl incident stirred up interest in krewes, to the point that over 30 of them now take part in Gasparilla.
There are all-female krewes, like Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley, and there are all-Latin krewes, like the Krewe of the Knights of Santiago. There's one krewe called Buffalo Soldiers, a social group made up of black men. There are some integrated krewes, too -- including the venerable Ye Mystic Krewe, which has a few new members.
"I'm not even sure how many African-Americans are with us now," says Jim Tarbet, an executive officer with Ye Mystic Krewe. "Safe to say, it reflects the community on the whole."
They'll all take part in this year's Gasparilla, bravely scheduled again to invade Tampa streets the day before Super Bowl XXXV.
"It's a much more joyous occasion now," admits King.
"There's a lot of water under the bridge since 1991," says Tarbet. "What happened, happened. Just like anything in life, it was a part of our history and it's not being repeated 10 years later."
Perhaps this is Tampa's strength: It has learned from its mistakes, using the media spotlight to hasten its evolution.
Leland Hawes, a historian for Tampa who writes for the Tribune, says Tampa's story is not unlike that of many towns below the Mason-Dixon line.
"It was finally shedding its Old South roots," Hawes says of the '91 Gasparilla cancellation. "It was bound to come. It's been part of the revamping of society generally in a lot of Southern cities."
But residents like Dorsey say Tampa is not typical, by any stretch.
"I don't see it as a traditional Southern town," he says, "but there's definitely a real virulent honky-tonk strain of culture here. It's a funky city."
It might get that funky charm from its location. Tampa sits in the middle portion of the state, north enough to succumb to the redneck culture -- hunting, pickup trucks, snuff -- that bleeds from Georgia and Alabama, yet south enough to ensure that plantains and other Latin fare are offered on many a menu.
While this Super Bowl might not have race issues this year, it could stumble over another P.R. nightmare: strip-club busts. It's no secret that Tampa, like many Florida cities, has a seedy side. The city offers a host of neon-lit strip joints that capitalized on lax legislation regarding "hands-on" entertainment, with strippers giving lap dances to paying customers.
But earlier this year, the city, led by Mayor Greco, instituted a new law that prohibits the touchy-feely encounters of the past. Strip joints like Mons Venus have resisted, and they've been the target of well-publicized busts.
This spells trouble. When sports stars invade a town, as they do during a Super Bowl, they're inevitably drawn to strip joints and various other fleshly pleasures like bees to honey. (Case in point: Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson, who spent the night before the Super Bowl in jail after being arrested for soliciting oral sex from an undercover cop.) Tampa residents wouldn't be surprised to hear this week of a popular athlete being arrested for getting too friendly with a stripper. It already happened earlier this month when two NHL players, in town with the Dallas Stars to play the Tampa Bay Lightning, were led away in handcuffs from Mons.
"It's almost a booby trap," says Dorsey, "because they have lap dances in other places around the country and if a stripper is offering it and you accept it, you don't know it's illegal. People are going to be getting arrested who really don't deserve it."
But Tampa will likely survive any potential lap-dancing scandals. And the Super Bowl is peanuts compared to what's on the Chamber of Commerce agenda. The former backwater town that still boasts its share of two-lane, potholed roads and rundown strip malls is leading central Florida's efforts to win the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Against populous and sophisticated (by comparison) cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington-Baltimore, it's holding its own.
So far, it has raised more money than any competing city -- $10 million, according to Terri Parnell, director of communications for Florida 2012. This past December, the organization submitted its bid, a 1,000-page report and video on the area. And this weekend, Florida 2012 will have a float in Gasparilla, with former Olympians tossing coins that on one side read "Today" with the Super Bowl XXXV logo, and on the other side read "Tomorrow" with the area's Olympic logo.
In October 2002, the United States Olympic Committee will pick the winning city to represent America against international rivals.
The question to all of this is, Why?
Why has Tampa been lucky enough to win three Super Bowls? What gives it the gumption to reach for the 2012 Summer Games, even though it's a mere seven-hour drive from Atlanta, which hosted the '96 Olympics?
The answer, of course, is the same thing that put the rest of Florida on the map -- the weather. Tampa enjoys 72-degree winters, making it a short-sleeve-golf kind of stop for the NFL this time of year -- an association that has helped give it name recognition and turned it into a thriving business center.
But there must be more to it than that. If weather was the only issue, Hawaii would host every sporting event ever created.
Like that debutante who presented herself to society back when the Super Bowl first came to town 17 years ago, Tampa Bay still has a lot of maturing to do. But she's ready for the challenge.
Meantime, Williams, who was once the only black quarterback in the NFL, points to a change in the team that once employed him -- and got rid of him -- during the days when he faced racist taunts. Though it's only sports, it could reflect a larger social shift in the area.
"Tampa Bay's got three black quarterbacks on their roster now," he says, disbelief lacing his words. "This is 2001. That's something, ain't it?"