LB Adam Hayward (right) had the gear and the togs of a serious paintball enthusiast
Donald Penn rounded the bend of the ill-marked trail cautiously, trying to keep most of his 300 or so pounds shielded by a thick tree. He'd caught a glimpse of something – or possibly, someone to his right, on a more open dirt trail in the forest, lying low to the ground.
The figure on the ground was indeed another person, an enemy, wearing a facemask and trying to get a clean shot on Penn. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle called out for reinforcements and then darted into the door of a battered shack just behind him.
The man on the ground was Josh Bidwell, Buccaneers punter. He was holding a paintball gun, as were Penn and the other dozen or so Buccaneers roaming through this medium-sized patch of the woods. Bidwell retreated from this position but was shot a few minutes later; it was in a good cause, as Bidwell's team was declared the winner in the end.
That was one of dozens of battles that took place over the course of three hours at a paintball park a few miles from Buccaneers headquarters on Thursday morning. Head Coach Raheem Morris had chosen to cancel the final day of practice at the team's mandatory mini-camp and instead take his crew out for a morning of team-building and camaraderie. Very competitive camaraderie.
"Coach Morris let us come out and spend our last day of mini-camp playing paintball," said wide receiver Maurice Stovall. "We get a little team camaraderie and we're just having a good time. Competition doesn't change. As it is in the football field, you bring it right to paintball. Everybody wants to win and it's all about you and your teammates executing."
The Buccaneers had taken similar outings to cap their offseason programs in recent years under former Head Coach Jon Gruden, but always to a bowling alley. The trips to the lanes were always a good time, but Thursday's paintball outing more thoroughly brought out the competitive side of the Buccaneers' players, coaches and football staffers. Howls of victory were common – Adam Hayward, Cadillac Williams, Maurice Stovall and Jameel Cook were usually the loudest – and challenge matches were arranged every few minutes.
Near 11:00 a.m., for instance, the undefeated squads led by Hayward and General Manager Mark Dominik agreed to a six-on-six battle in an arena named X-Ball. Running north to south and completely enclosed in mesh, the arena featured about eight rows of large, inflatable obstacles.
Hayward, who had brought his own gun and equipment and an unshakable confidence in his paintball talents, appeared to have the favored team but it was Dominik's crew that came out on top. The turning point in the battle was a bold open-field attack by Matt McCoy on Jameel Cook. McCoy and Cook ended up firing from close range as they danced around one obstacle, and McCoy scored the hit. Dominik's squad finished off the last few stragglers a few minutes later.
"It's been a great team-building day," said Dominik, who personally took a few hits on the day, though his team finished undefeated. "We've had a lot of fun breaking up into different groups, being able to work with different guys and just having a good time. You can see, as the day has gone on and we've continued to play, the competitiveness has come out. We're having a blast. The players are really enjoying this and so is the staff."
Hayward would later explain that his gun's battery had died during the grudge match; enough nagging and he eventually scored a one-on-one rematch with Dominik. Hayward got the win but not in the way he wanted, as Dominik's gun emptied – he "ran out of paint" – and he had to surrender.
Even without his most coveted "kill," Hayward thoroughly enjoyed himself Thursday morning.
"I love paintball," he said, a fact supported by his head-to-toe camouflage outfit and matching accessories. "It's a chance to go out, have fun, let out a little aggression. Practice is hard so we can come out here and take it out on somebody else. It's hot out here but we can go sit in the shade when we want. We don't have to wait for Coach to call a water break. I love football, but it's a nice day and I'm in the shade, so I can't complain."
If a young linebacker trying desperately to take down his own general manager seems like a rash move, career-wise, it was one of many. Young linebacker Jamall Johnson had nailed Dominik in an earlier match, and then proceeded to pump 10 more paintballs into Dominik's prone back before letting up. Safety Sabby Piscitelli had mercilessly hunted down Morris in another match, screaming "I got him!" triumphantly when a paintball caught his coach on the side of his mask.
"Let me tell you something, I feel a little extra energy in Sabby today," said an out-of-breath Morris, having just tried and failed in a sudden kamikaze rush on the opposing team. "I've got to get back at him. He's a little talented and he was talking, and I couldn't get him so I'm a little upset with myself."
According to cornerback Elbert Mack, some of the players had off-the-field grudges to settle with each other within the paintball arenas, perhaps making up for a PlayStation loss the day before. There was no shortage of trash-talking, but it was all in good fun.
"You see the camaraderie, you see the determination, the attitude," said Mack. "You see the rivalries, on and off-the-field rivalries. It's paintball, every man for himself.
Several other Bucs joined Hayward in bringing their own equipment, including Gaines Adams, Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant. Since their guns fired more rapidly and were decidedly more accurate, those who came prepared were often at a decided advantage. Adams, for instance, was able to hold off almost an entire team in one match with only one "live" teammate left…and this was only the second time he had tried his hand at paintball.
"I went and bought a gun," Adams admitted. "Those guys had guns, so I went and bought one. But I was just having fun. This is about team-bonding with the guys and I'm just having fun today. [The competitiveness] is what you get out of football players but we all know it's fun. It's got a good purpose. We took a day off of mini-camp, and I want to thank Ra for that."
Adams also pointed out that the exercise wasn't exactly a break from the sweat and hard work of the practice field, where the team could have been on Thursday morning.
"It's still hot, though. You're still getting a great workout out here, running around in this grass and trying to shoot the guys you want to shoot."
Added Mack, whose goal on the day was to shoot Morris at least once: "Raheem had a plan when he did this. He didn't give us a day off by far. Everybody's out here sweating, getting after it. We're doing it the right way, playing it safe and just having fun."
Morris had pizza delivered at about 11:30, and by noon most of the players had left the paintball park, tired but satisfied. They had the rest of the day to spend as they wished, and in fact they would not be required to return to team headquarters until July 31, the reporting day for training camp. Knowing that a long break was ahead, Morris wanted to use the day at the paintball park to bring his team close one last time.
"We're trying to have some fun team-building," he said. "We've got a couple different teams, having a lot of fun. There's nothing that brings the guys together better than going out and having some general fun together."