NEW PORT RICHEY — Some amazing life memories have been flashing back for River Ridge High head football coach Ryan Benjamin the past few weeks.
Before taking over the Royal Knights program in 2011, Benjamin, who also played at and graduated from River Ridge, had a three-year NFL career that included two stints as a long snapper with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The second spin around with his hometown team was a big one. The Bucs won their first and only Super Bowl during the 2002-03 season, blowing out the Oakland Raiders 48-21.
Fast-forward 18 years and Tampa Bay will be trying to win title No. 2 on Sunday evening at the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium.
Nearly two decades removed from that championship-winning experience in San Diego, Benjamin said Tampa Bay’s run throughout the postseason is bringing back plenty of great feelings and emotions.
“Oh yeah, it’s bringing a lot of memories back,” he said during a telephone interview last week. “Going to the NFC championship game in Philly and just what a big game that was. It was a tough matchup for us, and us going up in the cold. That was the big thing about us back then, just like everyone was saying about going up to Green Bay (for this year’s NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field).
“We had the odds stacked against us and I just remember Ronde (Barber) running that interception back.”
That 92-yard pick-six punched the Bucs’ ticket to Super Bowl XXXVII and Benjamin said his time in San Diego had a surreal feel for a 25-year-old preparing for the biggest game of his life.
"Just remembering the magnitude of it,” he said, noting that his first child was born 10 days before kickoff. “Of course, I was young at the time and you don’t really think about the big moment as a player. You just kind of do what you do. It’s not until afterwards that you look back on it and think, ‘Wow, what a wild run that was. Having a 100 million people watching you play a game.’ That sort of thing.
“I just remember media day being an absolute madhouse,” Benjamin recalled. “We have a two-hour period where we have to go to this conference center and sit through interviews, and I’m thinking, ‘Well what am I going to do? I’m the long snapper. Who’s going to interview me? What am I going to do for two hours?’ And then walking in and seeing my name on a giant table filled with reporters from all over the country and international reporters; it was pretty wild. I had an article done in USA Today and that’s when it hit me, thinking, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.’”
Another “wow” moment came game day, Benjamin said. “I’m warming up and (legendary sports broadcaster) Al Michaels comes over to me asking questions. That was interesting.”
Now as the Bucs try to achieve greatness for the second time in the franchise’s 45-year history, they’ll have their title-winning long snapper pulling for them as he has since he was a teenage Royal Knight.
And he has a good feel as Tampa Bay heads into battle with Kansas City.
“Shoot, do you ever bet against (Tom) Brady?,” Benjamin said when asked how he sees the game playing out. “I certainly wouldn’t want to bet against the guy. And the defense? The way they’re playing, the stars are kind of aligning as far as I can see.
“I think it’s going to be a good game. But I think the Bucs, with a little bit of homefield advantage, have a lot of good things going for them.”