Two 'steak' lovers feasting in Tampa

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TAMPA -- I'm sitting in a crowded Tampa streetcar filled with triple threats -- loud, drunk and stupid -- headed for the Ybor (that's Ee-bor as in "Eeyore'') City party scene.

It's 8 p.m. or so and Steelers fans and Ravens fans on the packed car are having an argument several notches south of sanity, but two relatively quiet guys seated ahead of me are the ones who grab my attention. They're dressed kind of funny, funny to be traveling together anyway, with one wearing the jersey of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the other the jersey of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.

The guy in the Warner jersey is treating this little two-mile jaunt like a Disney ride, smiling and waving to the sidewalk scene, using that little counterclockwise turn of his right hand that pontiffs and beauty queens give.

I lean over and suggest that if Warner and Roethlisberger fans can get along, perhaps there is hope for peace in the world, or at least on its streetcars. That's when I find out that neither guy is a big fan of either team, but Super Bowls are mother's milk to them. This is their sixth together in the past decade.

I fall in with them when we all get off in Ybor City and walk straight to Seventh Avenue, which on this night is trying hard to approximate New Orleans' Bourbon Street and having some success.

By then we've introduced ourselves. Mike Cunningham, of suburban Minneapolis, is a Buffalo Bills fan, and Bud Schneickert, who lives just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Kentucky, roots for the Kansas City Chiefs because he grew up in Joplin, Mo. They became friends working in the food-service industry.

"In probably the last 10 years," says Cunningham, 48, "I've seen seven football games, six of them are Super Bowls [counting tonight's] and the other one was an AFC championship game in Buffalo."

We're walking past a place where Maxim, the glossy magazine for young men who like to see photos of women well out of their league, is throwing a party. A long line of young women stretches down the sidewalk, a stream of legs and cleavage temporarily dammed by the front door. The model wannabes look a bit cold in the un-Floridian chill, but Cunningham and Schneickert, wearing shorts, have spring in their step. We pass the women, pass a guy in a Hines Ward jersey dancing so badly I expect Ward would tackle him if he knew, and go into a place that hand-rolls cigars.

Ybor City was a company town in the 1880s, with Mr. Ybor hiring thousands of Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants to make hundreds of millions of cigars through the succeeding decades. These guys decide to taste history and buy a few fresh stogies. I buy a round of $3 Mexican beers, and someone graciously carries a table out to the sidewalk, the better for us to see more of the joyful idiocy. The guys begin rattling off memories of Super Bowls past, the games and the parties in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, San Diego and now, for the second time, Tampa.

"Steelers fans are clearly the loudest this weekend, just like Bears fans were the loudest in Miami," Cunningham says, with no argument from Schneickert.

In North Tampa, where they'd been staying, they encountered a fair number of locals pulling for the Cardinals, but this part of town was clearly Steelers country. Cunningham said he liked being able to walk into a bar and be greeted by strangers in black and gold as if they were long-lost friends.

"Then they find out you're from Minneapolis and you're a Bills fan.''

When I asked what meant more, the parties or the game, Schneickert, 45, put it this way:

"It's like you were going to a nice restaurant and they were famous for their creme brulee or their U.S. prime beef. You enjoy the whole experience -- all the sides, the appetizers and the cocktails and the ambience and everything -- but you're going there for the steak.''

We soon were in mild argument about whether Warner is a Hall of Famer. Cunningham says no and Schneickert is down with an emphatic yes, and he swears he'd say that even if Warner hadn't taken the night shift in a grocery store after the Green Bay Packers cut him in 1994, making him forever a fellow food-service worker.

I called it a night about five hours before these guys did. When I reached Cunningham early the next afternoon on his cell, he said they didn't turn in until 4 a.m. I told him those kinds of nights were well in my past.

"We got about five a year,'' the father of three said. "This is it.''

Before I met them, I thought all this pre-Super Bowl hoopla was just a bunch of people standing around drinking and talking football, just like in Pittsburgh only with lighter garb. But for two grand a ticket, these guys are adding to warm memories of America's cities and its biggest game, games they can still detail almost down to each touchdown.

The steak, to borrow Schneickert's metaphor, will be served tonight.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at 412-263-1947 or .


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