The Bucs' rookie class enjoyed a day at the movies Tuesday with a large group of local teens
As the credits rolled on an advanced screening of Universal Pictures' upcoming film, "The Express," a loud round of applause erupted from the audience at Regal Cinemas at the Citrus Park Mall.
The cheer was doubly inspired: Not only was this particular group entertained by the film, it was also inspired. They even learned a little something along the way.
The crowd on hand for Tuesday's exclusive screening included more than 100 teens from local youth programs as well as 10 members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Rookie Club. They were treated to the true story of Ernie Davis, a running back at Syracuse who in 1961 became the first African-American to win college football's most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy
Many of the Bucs in attendance – a group consisting of cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Dexter Jackson, guard Jeremy Zuttah, defensive tackle Dre Moore, cornerback Elbert Mack, running back Clifton Smith, guard Lee James, cornerback Brandon Sumrall, quarterback Josh Johnson and safety Sergey Ivanov – admitted they hadn't heard of Davis' story, and the group of youngsters on hand surely knew even less of the inspiring tale of the 1961 Heisman winner.
Thus, the film served its purpose to educate and entertain as part of a league-wide initiative in conjunction with Universal Pictures and Regal Cinemas to allow participating teams and members of their communities a chance to get a sneak peek at the film.
Between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, the teens filed into the theater's lobby where they were greeted with high fives and how-are-you's from the Bucs' rookies. Before they made their way into the darkened theater, they were given a free bag of popcorn and a soda to drink, all courtesy of Talib.
"Anything I can do to help," Talib said with a grin. "The bill wasn't that big, and it's not a movie without some popcorn and some soda."
The youth groups represented on Tuesday afternoon were the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope, All Sports Community and the Carrollwood Hurricanes, a local Pop Warner football team. The kids on hand received Buccaneers hats and posters as part of their day at the movies, and also got a chance to pose for some pictures with the newest members of the Bucs.
As for the film, it told the emotional story of Davis, who rose from relative obscurity in upstate New York to follow in the footsteps of the great Jim Brown at Syracuse University. A remarkably talented athlete, Davis still felt the sting of prejudice because of the color of his skin, but he overcame it all to lead the Orangemen to a National Championship and win the Heisman Trophy.
Davis was selected as a first overall pick in the NFL Draft in 1962, but succumbed to leukemia at age 23 before he could play a down as a professional football player. As sad as the end of the story turned out to be, both the Bucs' rookies and the teens in attendance came away impressed and inspired by Davis' journey.
"It was a really good movie," said Zuttah afterward. "I'm kind of disappointed more people don't know that story, actually. I didn't know much about the man until I looked it up after being told that we were going to come to this movie. It's definitely a story that a lot of people aren't aware of and maybe should be. It's a story about a good man and a lot of people should hear it."
Added Liliana Bazan, 16, of the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope: "I thought the movie was great. It was encouraging to see and it taught me not to give up and to do whatever you believe in. It was an encouraging movie and I really liked it. I didn't even want to get up and go to the bathroom."
For the Bucs players, the story also struck home a bit. Nearly all of them completed their collegiate careers a matter of months ago, so it was eye-opening to see how different things used to be.
"It was amazing just to see Ernie Davis go through the struggles and the things that he had to go through and overcome, as far as race barriers and having to be one of three football players not being able to sleep in the same hotels as the rest of his teammates," Smith said. "It's just something that makes me appreciate what's going on nowadays."
Aside from the snacks he paid for the teens to enjoy while they watched the film, Talib said he also hoped they took something a little more important away from the day at the movies, just like he did.
"I hope they take away from it that no matter what, you can do whatever you want," Talib said. "It's the same thing that I take from the movie – no matter what, if he did it with leukemia, you can do whatever you want to do."
While there were some valuable lessons learned by watching "The Express," the kids in attendance did have a chance to meet – and goof off with – the Bucs' rookies, many of whom aren't all that much older than they are. In the end, it was a fun time had by all.
"We had a big old popcorn fight in the top row," Smith said with a laugh. "I got a little kid in trouble so I feel kind of bad, but it was a great time."