Joey Johnston has been a fixture in the Tampa Bay media for 35 years. Johnston started at the Tampa Tribune in 1980 while still a student at the University of South Florida and has been there ever since. Johnston was also co-author of the book Tales from the Bucs Sideline and many of his pieces on the Bucs from the 2002 Super Bowl season are included in the retrospective Pewter Power. You will also see Johnston interviewed for Buccaneer-related stories on the popular Top Ten series on NFL Network.
Recently, Joey Johnston spoke with It’s Sports contributor Denis Crawford about growing up a sports fan in the Tampa Bay Area.
Denis Crawford: What era did you grow up in Tampa Bay?
Joey Johnston: I was born in December of 1959 so the 60s and 70s were my growing up years. The 60s were my ten and below and then middle-school, teenage years were in the 70s. I was born in Tampa, my mother was born in Tampa so I have a lot of deep roots in Tampa. My father moved to Tampa after serving in World War II and our family has stayed tight knit in Tampa. My sister is also here and has never lived anywhere else. This has always been home and I believe always will be.
Denis: Your childhood occurred primarily before Tampa became a town with major professional sports. What did you consider to be your favorite team during that time?
Joey: My favorite football team was the Miami Dolphins because they were the closest team and I distinctly remember the American Football League (AFL). I fondly remember the last year of the AFL (1969) more specifically than any other year. I actually enjoyed the AFL more than the NFL. My first big memory of a televised sporting event was seeing the Jets win Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts. I thought that was the greatest thing. The underdog won for the AFL. The AFL was my league. Now the Dolphins were not a good team in the AFL but then when Don Shula came in 1970 they got really good really fast.
Two years later they went undefeated when I was 13 or 14 and I lived or died with the Dolphins. I saved every issue of the Tampa Tribune from the day after a Dolphins game and I subscribed to Dolphins Digest the team publication, and I was pretty encyclopedic in my knowledge of the Dolphins. I had two record albums of highlights of the 1972-1973 seasons with Rick Weaver’s calls interspersed with some commentary. I would just sit there and listen to those calls and get all emotional over those big plays. I thought it was really cool to have a team when I was a kid win back-to-back Super Bowls. There is nothing like being a kid and having your team win it all.
Denis: Did you go to any games?
Joey: At that time Tampa was trying to get a franchise and make themselves known. In the 60s they began hosting NFL exhibition games and I went to just about all of those with my family. They would host two or three in a summer. They would try to sell-out the stadium and get the NFL’s attention and say, “Look we can pack this place and this is a great place to have a team.”
I must have gone to ten or twelve of those games. One I remember very well was when the Jets played the Lions and Joe Namath hurt his knee and missed the whole season (1971). It was a real big deal. I remember a lot of attention was put on that game because of Namath’s injury. Whatever sports show there was that weekend would show highlights and talk about Tampa. I thought that was cool because they didn’t have highlight shows like they do now, so it was incredible to see the attention. I thought to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we got an NFL team here.”
Denis: When did you learn Tampa was going to get a team?
Joey: I was in middle school and riding my bike home and it came out Tampa had gotten an expansion franchise and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. We had a team that would become the Bucs.
Denis: You were excited but still a Dolphin fan.
Joey: I was a Dolphin fan, very passionate and Bob Griese was my favorite player. I had a poster of him in my room. On the playground I would pretend I was Bob Griese calling out the signals. But after winning two Super Bowls, they lost to the Raiders in a playoff game on a miracle pass, I believe the Sea of Hands game. That was a bitter pill and soon after it was announced Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were all leaving for the World Football League. It was almost as if a switch clicked in my mind. That was the last day I was a Dolphins fan. I was so disappointed and disgusted by the signings. With a new team in Tampa I shifted to the new team with very little hesitation.
Denis: It’s ironic. The man who signed Csonka, Kiick and Warfield was Johnny Bassett, who would go on to give us the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL in the 1980s.
Joey: Yeah, that’s right. That is kind of ironic.
Denis: Did you ever get a chance to vent to Bassett about him signing away the three Dolphins?
Joey: I did get a chance to meet him but I didn’t express that (laughs). I have very happy memories with the Dolphins, but no regrets. Even when the Dolphins made a couple of Super Bowls in the 1980s I just had no feeling for it. They were just the team when I was young.
Denis: What other teams did you follow?
Joey: With Spring Training in Tampa I’d go to games a lot and my team was the Cincinnati Reds because they trained in Tampa. Like the Dolphins, I was fortunate as a young person to have this team in that era. The Big Red Machine won two World Series in a row. Pete Rose was my guy and I probably saw more than 100 Reds games in my young life: Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan, I saw those guys countless times and lived and died over their results. It was nice that between the ages of 12 and 16 my teams won two Super Bowls and two World Series.
Denis: You brought up the exhibition games at Tampa Stadium. What do you remember about old Tampa Stadium before the Bucs moved in?
Joey: It was two free-standing sides with nothing behind the end zones except palm trees and open air. It was much cooler temperature-wise because the air could circulate. There was an east side and west side and nothing connecting them. If you had to go from one side to the other for some reason you actually had to leave the stadium. It was much more picaresque with the palm trees. When they got the franchise though they had to add seats so they closed off the end zones and put in seats that weren’t as high as the two sides, so it got its iconic, sloping “sombrero” shape.
I think the summer before the Bucs game there was an exhibition game while the construction was going on. There were fences, half-done seats and it went from 46,000 seats to 72,000 for the first Bucs game in 1976.
Denis: Growing up in Tampa we had the chance to play outside year-round. What was your favorite sport to play?
Joey: Baseball, basketball and football were the big three. I don’t think any one of them ranked over the others. Sometimes we would play all three in one day. It was definitely a stay outside all day thing in our neighborhood. There was an elementary school a few blocks away where we would play basketball in the morning. There was also a Dairy Queen, so we’d get ice cream after basketball and then go to play baseball or throw the football around for a while longer. We would grudgingly come home when it got dark or when it was time for dinner. We liked to be outside. We’d also swim at city pools or one of the kids in the neighborhood had an above-ground pool. Yeah, so you’d wake up and maybe have some breakfast and then you wouldn’t be seen until late in the day. There were no video games. Maybe sometimes we’d stay home to watch television.
Denis: Do you remember what sporting programs you would go out of your way to watch?
Joey: I’d never miss This Week in Pro Football from NFL Films with Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. I was an NFL Films guy from an early age and still am. The highlights, the music, I just loved it. There would also be the Game of the Week on NBC on Saturday for our one baseball game a week.
Now I would not fail to watch every NFL game on Sunday. I would not go outside. I’d sit there from 1:00 pm to about 7:00 pm. I’d watch the Dolphins and then whoever played the later game. I’d get to stay up until halftime of the Monday Night Football games, but I’d stay up for the whole game if the Dolphins were on. The NCAA tournament was also fun because that was a chance to see UCLA play under John Wooden. But that was it. We didn’t really see much hockey or pro basketball.
You’d also rarely see the Florida Gators on television, maybe once or twice a year. I’d never see Florida State or the University of Miami play on television.
I also loved a quiz show that Dick Enberg hosted. It’d have three Yankees go against three Lakers in a quiz show. They’d work as a team to answer trivia questions.
I also liked a pre-game show Joe Garagiola had before the Game of the Week. It was The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. There’d be quick highlights because that was the only way to see some players. There was no ESPN. Maybe some stories on the local news.
Denis: It’s easy to forget that it was hard to watch certain sports on television because Tampa didn’t have a professional team. Baseball was a good example.
Joey: Yeah, I remember about 1977 channel 44 (WTOG) the independent station started showing random weeknight baseball games. Somehow they got the rights and would show feeds from the local network of the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies. That was remarkable. There are three baseball games this week, that’s incredible!
In the late 1970s ABC did add a Monday Night Baseball game which was a nice innovation. Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell did the coverage and it would involve high profile teams like the Reds.
Denis: Comparing coverage now with coverage then, I’m always interested in learning if people have an opinion on which era was better.
Joey: Well, I guess you’d always more fondly remember the era you grew up in. I have a lot of fondness for my era. And sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up with all this information, to see any game I wanted to. It might not have been good. I might have never left the house!
Any games or information you could get back then was very special. Now, they’re not special unless it’s a championship game. Now it’s just programming we have access to. I remember scrambling for information, not knowing who won a game on the west coast. Calling the newspaper or scanning the radio. If the Reds played the Dodgers or Giants, it’d be until the afternoon newspaper, the Tampa Times, came around 4:00 pm until I could find out.
Denis: You’d be so impatient you’d call the newspaper?
Joey: Yeah, I wanted to know if my Reds won. I didn’t know what else to do. There was a lot to the imagination. With baseball players there was more mystery. The NFL always had games on the weekend, but with baseball there would be players and teams you would never see. You’d only read about them and maybe see a picture in the newspaper. That’s absurd to think of nowadays. Even Little League is on television now. It’s weird, but maybe in a way less was better.
Now, if a Rays’ game isn’t on television you almost lose your mind. What do you mean they aren’t on television? You get unnerved almost.
Now, being on television isn’t unique or special. When I was a kid, the game on television was amazing and had to be important.
Denis: What is your fondest sporting memory from childhood?
Joey: You know what, the Dolphins Super Bowls, the Reds World Series and the Bucs’ first victory.
Denis: The Bucs first win ranks with those accomplishments to you?
Joey: That was incredibly special. I was 17 or 18 and a fan. I had season tickets so I had seen all the previous 26 losses and when they played the New Orleans Saints and won it was an incredible thing. I went with my friends down to One Buc Place and there was a lot of people there partying in the streets. And then the next week they won at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. I fondly recall those teams because they never gave up. They played hard. So when they finally won it was something you’ll never forget.
Denis: Were you one of the fans who stormed the field after the Cardinals game?
Joey: Oh, no. I remember that and seeing a lot of people get caught in the net behind the goal posts. But I did watch the goal posts come down. That was an amazing, amazing moment.