TAMPA — It has been 28 years since the Buccaneers last owned the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, when they targeted a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from a state powerhouse who was coming off a disappointing loss that ended chances for a national championship.
Except then, there was no debate about who was the best player the worst team in the NFL should select. Not a single argument.
Vinny Testaverde doesn't remember even talking to another team before the draft. All the scrutiny he faced — the cruel billboards and newspaper cartoons — came after he signed a six-year, $8.2 million contract with the Bucs.
"I don't remember meeting with anyone," Testaverde said. "I talked to Ray Perkins in the Japan Bowl at practice, but nobody really interviewed with me."
In his second pro season under the heavy thumb of Perkins, the Bucs' coach, GM and offensive coordinator, Testaverde threw 35 interceptions, still the second most in NFL history.
If that didn't destroy him, what he endured off the field should have. Everybody took shots, and negative opinions flew like Testaverde's wayward passes, rarely hitting the target. He was not bright enough to be an NFL quarterback, they said. He was color-blind, he admitted, and that was served up as an explanation as to why he threw to the wrong guys.
But the truth is that Testaverde was asked to carry on his back a young team that didn't have the same talent advantage over the competition as the one he left at the University of Miami.
"From my junior year through my senior year, I received all those accolades and was the first pick in the draft. It's a lot for a young man to take on," said Testaverde, now 51, a father of two daughters and a son with his wife of 24 years, Mitzi, and living on a lake in north Tampa. "Sometimes you're so caught up in your own little football world with teammates and all the coaches, you don't realize all the pressure that's involved until afterward. But coming to a team like Tampa Bay, coming to a team that did not win many games before I ever got there, that was stressful in itself.
"(I was) just feeling like, okay, I have to be the difference-maker. Because in college, you can say I was one of the better players, but I had the talent around me. I had Michael Irvin, Brett Perriman, Bennie Blades, Alonzo Highsmith and Jerome Brown. That's what got lost about me. When I came to the Bucs, the talent we had was young talent — Mark Carrier, Bruce Hill, Ron Hall — a lot of rookies learning together and making a lot of mistakes. … At the quarterback position, everything gets enhanced. Everybody looks at it differently, but it is a lot to handle for a young man."
Testaverde was drafted to be the Bucs' savior. Instead, he became one of the NFL's most celebrated survivors.
Vinny, vidi, vici. He came and conquered the quarterback position for seven teams over an astounding 21 seasons.
When Testaverde came off his couch in Long Island to lead the Panthers to a 25-10 win over the Cardinals on Oct. 14, 2007, he became the oldest quarterback to start and win a game at age 43.
In between were memorable seasons (two ended in the Pro Bowl) with the Browns, Ravens and (V-V-V-Vinny and the) Jets. The closest he got to a Super Bowl was when John Elway and the Broncos beat his Jets in the AFC title game in January 1999.
It turns out that his six hellish seasons with the Bucs fueled his tank for a longer journey. Testaverde had the misfortune of being drafted by the bumbling Bucs of owner Hugh Culverhouse. Long before he arrived, the franchise had lost its first 26 games, failed to re-sign quarterback Doug Williams and lost the 1986 No. 1 overall pick, Auburn running back Bo Jackson, to baseball.
The losing got to Testaverde, who in the Miami cradle of QBs had followed Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar.
"You work just as hard as every other player and every other team, and when you don't win games, it's not fun," Testaverde said. "At first, I didn't know how to handle it. I didn't know how to respond to questions about it. I was quite uncomfortable answering questions, or responding to people, even in public. I just kind of figured, take a breath and keep plugging away and the way to fix it was to keep working harder and get everybody believing we can do this."
But not everybody believed, and Testaverde didn't lose just ball games. His first marriage ended after 10 months. The divorce was amicable, but he blamed it on his failure to manage anger by yelling and beating on walls. His color-blindness was lampooned by a bright blue WFLZ billboard that read: VINNY THINKS THIS IS ORANGE. Even this newspaper ran a cartoon at Halloween with a man sailing candy way over the open bags of trick or treaters with the caption: Thanks, Mr. Testaverde.
Ah, but Vinny got the last laugh. His golden arm never betrayed him as he passed for 46,233 yards in his career, ninth all time.
Today Testaverde is a restaurant owner and investor, having recently sold an Outback Steakhouse in California while watching PDQ chicken restaurants in which he is a partner open in north Florida. He also tutors high school and college quarterbacks, including his son, Vincent Jr., who recently enrolled at Miami.
Testaverde loves Tampa and still follows the Bucs. On this day, he was asked the proverbial question: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota?
"Coming out of college, you're the first overall pick and a Heisman Trophy winner," he said. "There's great expectations. The previous year (the Bucs) didn't have a great year, so they're expecting great things. Hopefully, (Winston's and Mariota's) career will start out better than mine, and hopefully it will last even longer than mine did."