It was a play that, during a normal practice, would have drawn a smattering of "oohs" on the field, and then maybe another round of "aahs" later in the meeting room. This was not a normal practice, however.
When E.J. Biggers and Preston Parker leaped in unison, 40 yards downfield from where the pass was lofted, they did so on the giant videoboards overhead as well. And when Biggers somehow snatched the ball away from the receiver and landed hard on the ground with an interception, a crowd of 28,000 people erupted. On the scoreboard, the number under "defense" ticked up one. From the sideline at midfield, a stream of red-shirted defensive backs streamed onto the field and swarmed over Biggers, congratulating him.
Again, this was one rep during a training camp practice. The emotions and excitement of the moment, however, were real.
This just happened to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium, presented by Bright House Networks, a three-times annual event that has grown in scope and sheer must-see status every year. On Saturday, the eighth day of the team's 2011 training camp, the Buccaneers brought their usual evening workout to their home playing field and threw open the doors for all their friends.
That and a schedule packed with extras – from the exciting Player Throwdowns that created Biggers' big moment to creative challenge games between the players – made Raymond James Stadium the perfect weekend destination for Buccaneer fans ready for the 2011 season to begin.
The night's added features stretched the event to nearly three hours, much longer than the normal practice, but the extra time was needed to fit in all the fan-friendly details. The first of those set a perfect tone for the night, as the players arrived at the stadium well before the scheduled start of practice and came out onto the field to meet fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures.
The practice formally kicked off at 6:30, and not long after team gameday host Tiffany Jimenez, a former Buccaneers Cheerleader, headed into the stands to give away tickets through a series of trivia questions. Meanwhile, on the field, the action began with a replay of last year's popular Jugs Machine Challenge.
Wide receiver Micheal Spurlock defended his Challenge title by catching and holding onto seven footballs at the same time while fielding a series of "punts" shot out of the Jugs Machine. Spurlock matched his number from last year to easily top fellow receivers Sammie Stroughter, Preston Parker and Jock Sanders, but he fell a little short of his personal goal. He had predicted on Buccaneers.com that a "new method" (read: stashing a football under his jersey) would allow him to juggle an incredible nine footballs. Close, but no cigar.
General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris answered questions for the fans from the field, even fielding some queries sent in from the crowd in the stands via the Bucs' twitter feed (tbbuccaneers). And, at the beginning of each practice period, taped messages from assistant coaches let the folks in attendance know exactly what to expect from the upcoming drills.
Kickers Connor Barth and Jacob Rogers staged a friendly game of B-U-C, meant to emulate the popular basketball game of H-O-R-S-E, but with fancy kicks instead. Barth won that challenge at the end with a crazy field goal somehow angled in from the end zone pylon on the sideline.
The Buccaneers still used a majority of the evening to get in the work they needed to accomplish, especially with their first game looming just six days away. But most of the practice periods had an added layer of entertainment on top. For instance, the full-speed goal-line drill early in the evening featured a running score, with the offense getting a point every time it got the ball in the end zone and the defense tallying one when it held its ground. Tampa Bay's offense started the evening on a hot streak, scoring on each of the first three plays, including one spectacular catch in the end zone by Kellen Winslow and two strong runs by Kregg Lumpkin.
That running score continued on through a series of Throwdowns, first between offensive and defensive linemen and then between pass-catchers and back-seven defenders. The offensive line dominated that set of one-on-one drills, putting their side well up on the scoreboard. The most entertaining matchup featured Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn against rookie first-rounder Adrian Clayborn, as Penn danced out to his spot to his own chosen music and then preceded to stonewall the newcomer twice. In practice, that battle has been quite even, and a lot of hard work for both, but on this night the blockers came out on top on most of the snaps.
The pass-catchers started out hot, too, particularly when running back Earnest Graham ran an out-and-up route down the middle and got behind linebacker Mason Foster for a long touchdown. However, Biggers' play sparked the defense to wins in the last five matchups. Overall, the offense still "won" the night, 16-9.
Fans who stayed to the end – and that was almost all of those 28,000 who packed the RJS stands – were treated to two show-stoppers as finales. First, the team's five passers took part in a Quarterback Challenge, which entailed throwing at a series of targets on moving golf carts. Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson, Rudy Carpenter, Mike Coughlin and Jonathan Crompton all started the first round, with all but Coughlin and Johnson moving on to Round Two.
Freeman started out blazing hot, hitting his first two targets in the small bull's-eye at the center. However, it was Carpenter and Crompton who moved on to the finals by scoring matching totals of 47 points through the first two rounds. Crompton, who had just joined the team the day before as a free agent, put up a nice score of 18 in the final round to set the bar high, but Carpenter easily topped that with a score of 30 to take the title.
Head Coach Raheem Morris huddled his team at midfield immediately after Carpenter's last throw and urged them to stay focus. When the huddle broke, the lights at the stadium dropped and fans were directed to watch the sky above the north end zone. There, a long and impressive fireworks show capped the evening and symbolized the excitement that is building over the Buccaneers' 2011 season.
The lights came up to reveal many fans still in their seats. Some stayed for a long-time after, even as the last players were leaving through the stadium tunnels. Many, it seemed, just weren't ready for the night to be over.
The good news: Buccaneer football is coming back to Raymond James Stadium very soon, and it's only going to get better from here.