Tampa bay buccaneers rookie quarterback Shaun King was born across the bay in St. Petersburg, but the origin of his football career can be traced to a small yellow stucco and stone house in the heart of Tampa. A faded photo of four-year-old Shaun in a Bucs uniform, holding a football twice the size of his head, is displayed in this house. A mirror in the bathroom is where his maternal grandmother, Alberta Williams, taped Bible verses about poise, maturity and leadership so that the preteen Shaun would read them while he brushed his teeth. Out front are the moss-covered oaks from which the adolescent Shaun dangled, hoping he could stretch himself tall enough to play in the NFL.
This house was also the place where Shaun, fresh from a record-setting career at Tulane, gathered with his family and friends to watch the first day of the NFL draft last April. Early that Saturday afternoon Shaun's younger brother, Cedric, sneaked out to a pay phone and called the house, pretending to be Bucs coach Tony Dungy. The family was still laughing about Cedric's prank when an hour later, in the middle of the second round, Dungy called for real.
The Kings' house—one of two that the family maintains because Shaun's mother, Carolyn, an accountant, and his father, Sam, an assistant pastor and an insurance claims adjuster, work in both Tampa and St. Pete—is in a neighborhood in Tampa where the streets are named after species of fish. Each summer as a teenager Shaun and his friends would form football teams and play in Nuccio Park for the mythical Fish Bowl tide. Who knew that less than 10 years later King would go from leading the Perch in the Fish Bowl to helping the Bucs try to reach the Super Bowl for the first time?
On Sunday, only three weeks after injuries had catapulted him from third string to first, King led Tampa Bay past the Detroit Lions 23-16, completing 23 of 37 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns in a gut-wrenching battle for first place in the NFC Central. Now 9-4 after three straight wins with the 22-year-old King at the controls, the Bucs have the inside track for the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and the first-round bye that goes with it.
It has been 18 years since Tampa Bay stood atop the NFC Central this late in the season, and not since Doug Williams directed the offense in the late 1970s and early '80s have the Bucs had a quarterback who has generated so much excitement. "Shaun King would never qualify for any quarterback beauty pageants," says Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. "He's short [six feet], he's somewhat pudgy [225 pounds], he's not the fastest guy. He's a good athlete but not a great one. But he's a winner. Whatever the if is that makes quarterbacks special, Shaun has it."
Backup Eric Zeier was already sidelined with bruised ribs when starter Trent Dilfer broke his right clavicle during the third quarter of a Nov. 28 road game against the AFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks. With the Bucs leading 6-3, King stepped in and threw a touchdown pass in a 16-3 win. The following week, with the division lead on the line, he made his first NFL start in a Monday-night game against the Minnesota Vikings. He threw for two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory and was so calm in the huddle that his teammates, who have nicknamed him Smoothie King, had to ask him to speak up. "I went up to him before the game," says McKay, "and the expression on his face was the same as it was before practice back in June."
Dating back to his junior year at Tulane, King has gone 25 months without losing a game he has started. With the Bucs' winning streak at a team-record six games, he appears entrenched as the starter for the rest of the season. That's because against the Vikings and the Lions, King overcame his own turnovers to engineer fourth-quarter rallies. For the first time this decade Tampa Bay is winning because of its quarterback, not despite him. "I thought our defensive line would get to him a bit more," said Detroit coach Bobby Ross, whose team beat up and confused Zeier in a 20-3 win on Oct. 31. "[King] has a bright future in this league."
That leaves the Bucs in a delicate situation. After the season Tampa Bay has to decide whether to pony up a $4.2 million bonus to retain six-year veteran Dilfer's rights for the next two years; if it chooses not to pay, Dilfer becomes a free agent. "We want to win a Super Bowl, and not too many teams have been able to do that with a young quarterback," says McKay, "but how Shaun performs will be one factor in how we deal with Trent."
Against the Lions, King's mix of confidence, leadership and field vision was nothing short of magical. What do the Bucs think of King? On Sunday the conservative Dungy turned into an Arena League coach. Tampa Bay, which entered the game running the ball a league-high 51.8% of the time, threw 37 passes and rushed only 19 times. "The game turned into a situation like you see in basketball," Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said afterward. "A guy gets hot, and you keep feeding him the ball."
Facing a 16-9 deficit as he trotted onto the field early in the fourth quarter, King crossed paths with Bucs cornerback Donnie Abraham, who grabbed him by the arm and yelled into King's face mask, "It's time. Do what you do."