Deep in the bowels of Soldier Field, dull gray bricks line the corridor. Drab gray concrete, cracked and stained, makes up the floor; fittingly, a dreary, gray Chicago sky peeks through the tunnel. It's through this haze of gloom that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flood into the concourse. Their game against the Bears, more mauling than true competition, just came to a merciful end, and the players practically run into the visitors locker room, eager to put physical distance between themselves and this 48-10 debacle.
Near the end of the pack, Ryan Fitzpatrick walks alone. He wears his red Buccaneers baseball cap and that tangle of bushy, unruly beard, but he's subdued. Solemn, even. A few minutes later, he'll make his way toward his locker, freshly showered and changed into his street clothes. Jeans and a plain, unremarkable sweater. That, too, is gray.
Ankle-deep in the clutter of discarded uniforms, pads and dirty laundry that collect on the floor, he looks a little glassy-eyed and sounds more than a little demoralized as he tries to explain what went wrong this Sunday and what the rest of his Sundays might look like this season.
"I have no idea," he tells the throng of reporters around his locker. "I'm not sure."
If the aftermath of this loss -- a Week 4 defeat that leaves the Buccaneers at 2-2 and Fitzpatrick's doomed fate as starter all but sealed -- feels a touch funereal, well, that's because it is. Here lies FitzMagic, Sept. 9, 2018-Sept. 30, 2018.
It wasn't long for this world, but it was spectacular.
"Who is that?" wonders Orlando Navarrete, the manager of Halloween Megastore on West Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, when asked whether he has any Ryan Fitzpatrick costumes available. "Is that the guy with the beard?"
"Yeah, there were three or four days where people were buying beards just about every day," he says.
Navarrete doesn't watch football, so the sudden and dramatic surge of beard-seeking Halloween shoppers in the greater Tampa area was, by and large, a mystery to him. He missed Fitzpatrick's first 400-yard game against the Saints in Week 1. He tuned out the second 400-yard outing the following week, this time against the Eagles, and the postgame news conference that launched a thousand GIFs, when Fitzpatrick embraced his inner Conor McGregor, chest hair and bling. Navarrette also failed to notice the history-making third 400-yard performance against the Steelers, an effort that didn't win the game but earned Fitzpatrick one more start, newly-not-suspended Jameis Winston be damned.
By contrast, Eric Wiese, a lifelong Tampa-area resident and Buccaneers fan, proved practically clairvoyant. The FitzMagic train? He was aboard before it was really even on the tracks.
"I don't want to say I was the conductor," he says, "but I took a chance, and everything came up aces."
Last month, he was preparing for a weekend trip to New Orleans. The plan was to visit the city to celebrate his childhood friend's upcoming marriage ("It wasn't really a bachelor party. We're 49-year-old men.") and, while they were in town, catch the Buccaneers taking on the Saints in the first game of the season. But Wiese wanted to make a statement. He wanted to go big. He wanted to "own the moment." So he commissioned custom shirts: FitzMagic nameplate on the back and a hand-painted letter on the front of each of the six red tees for him and his travel companions. "M-A-G-I-C-!" they spelled. Finally, for his pièce de résistance, he secured six fake, lumberjack-worthy beards to complete the ensemble. Wiese has the photographic proof from the Superdome and the post-win celebration down Bourbon Street: He and his friends were the earliest official FitzMagic adopters.
Oh, he welcomed all comers and contributions to the mania. The parody songs that blared over the radio waves in the first weeks of the season with reimagined lyrics: Oh, ho, ho, FitzMagic, you know! The T-shirts that sprang up like weeds: the red ones with Fitzpatrick's likeness and a "Stay Humble" caption to boot; the black ones that trumpeted "FITZ-TORIOUS"; the white ones that declared, simply, "FitzMagic." The fake beards and the newly grown beards and even the beards that long predated Fitzpatrick's resurgence in his 14th season at age 35 but whose provenances have been conveniently rewritten. "Oh, yeah," says one Tampa Bay fan sporting a "Duck Dynasty"-length beard who trekked from his home in Mount Vernon, Iowa, to Chicago in Week 4. "I've told people my beard's for Fitzpatrick."
Never mind that all of this -- these brief, supernova bursts of FitzMagic -- happened before. A 5-2 start in Buffalo in 2011. A 10-6 campaign as a Jet in 2015, surpassing Vinny Testaverde's single-season passing touchdown record, with 31. And then, inevitably, the crash back to earth. In Buffalo: a 1-8 finish after that 5-2 start. In New York: just three wins to eight losses in his 11 starts the season after in 2016.
Never mind all that, because this was happening here! In Tampa! He outdueled Drew Brees in a shootout! He overpowered the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles! He nearly brought the Bucs back from a 20-point crater against the forever-contender Steelers! Forget the 0-3 start that football's prognosticating class foresaw for Tampa Bay. Fitzpatrick made the Buccaneers nearly unstoppable!
The audience understood the trick and accepted it: Fitzpatrick would play like a world-beater, then be beaten. Yes, the fans were swept up in the moment. Yes, they'd wear his T-shirts and don his beard. They'd ride this out until it ended -- because it would end, they knew -- and then they'd move on to their former No. 1 draft pick, newly returned from suspension, waiting in the wings.
"There's magic happening in Tampa," one giddy Bucs fan outside Soldier Field said in the moments before kickoff. "There sure is."
"Jameis is gonna be the quarterback. But we're gonna stick with Fitzy ..." a friend jumped in, then paused for a beat. "... until he messes up."
He messed up.
That is how Fitzpatrick managed the rare, tragicomic feat of making it to the Hall of Fame 24 hours after getting benched. On Monday, Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter announced that Winston would resume starting responsibilities against Atlanta, in the team's first game after its Week 5 bye. Then, on Tuesday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame tweeted a photograph of the newest arrival in Canton: Fitzpatrick's Week 3 jersey, worn the Monday night when he became the first player to throw for 400 yards three weeks running.
FitzMagic, but with twisted irony.
In truth, there was hardly a Buccaneer who took the field against the Bears on Sunday who didn't mess up. (Signs point to calamity when the head coach resorts to gallows humor or truth so blunt it could be mistaken for it. "We should fire every person that was on that field today, starting with me," Koetter said after the loss.) The Tampa Bay defense silver-plattered Mitch Trubisky his best day as a professional -- by a mile. The Chicago quarterback's 98.2 QBR was 32.7 points better than his previous high and 59.7 points higher than his career average. And Fitzpatrick, down 35 points by halftime, with one interception and two sacks on his ledger, wasn't given any more leash. His day was over.
In the second half against the Bears, with Winston reinserted in the lineup and Fitzpatrick manning the sideline, No. 14 slid into backup-quarterback protocol. Fitzpatrick mostly lingered around the 40-yard line, baseball hat on, posture erect, arms behind his back, hands clasped together. When Winston sat at the bench to review plays with quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, Fitzpatrick peered over, idling, then sidled away. He was there, but not. He was there, at a remove.
He has been here before, of course, at the nadir of the FitzMagic cycle. Fitzpatrick and his wife, Liza, and their six kids know this place well. If he's a journeyman, they're his journey-fans. "We've been fans of seven different teams," Liza's aunt, Doria Martuzzo, explains. She has worn No. 14 in Buffalo red, white and blue. And Houston red, white and blue. And New York green. This season, on Sunday in Chicago, she wore Tampa Bay red. Still, even for the Fitzpatricks and their extended circle, this latest ride felt different. Joyous, Martuzzo explains, and a little delirious. The memes and the shirts and that beard? For a moment, it was wild. Two weeks ago, a lifetime ago in the FitzMagic-adjusted timeline, Martuzzo sat in the Fitzpatricks' Tampa home, a few hours after the Bucs dispatched the Eagles. She watched TV, with the news playing Ryan's news conference on a loop -- the first inklings of the viral mania to come -- and him decked out in DeSean Jackson's track suit, glasses and gold necklaces. She cross-referenced that Ryan with the Ryan sitting in the dining room and thought: This is surreal.
This Sunday, though, reality sets back in. The FitzMagic is gone, and as is often the case, the grieving process is messy. Some greet the crash landing with anger bordering on belligerence. "I don't give a f--- about Fitzpatrick," yells one Tampa Bay fan leaving Soldier Field early in the fourth quarter, fed up with the team's futility. Others cope with a belief that sounds like bargaining. "I'll keep the shirt forever," Eric Wiese says of the FitzMagic tee he wore proudly in New Orleans. "I'll probably keep wearing it during Bucs games this year to try to get the magic back." And a few feel the anguish. In a mostly emptied locker room, Jackson, who two weeks earlier voiced his support for Fitzpatrick keeping the starting job, can only shake his head when asked about the team's quarterback question moving forward. "I'm not gonna get into that." Fitzpatrick looks on with what looks like quiet acceptance.
As Winston puts on a blue business suit and tie, preparing to face the news conference masses, to answer for the loss like starting quarterbacks do, Fitzpatrick slips silently out of the locker room. He escapes mostly unnoticed, his latest magic trick.