On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed more than 60 athletes from Special Olympics Florida to their training camp home, continuing an annual tradition of uniting some of West Central Florida's fiercest competitors with their favorite NFL players for a day of sun-soaked fun.
The Buccaneers practiced first on Wednesday morning, and the bleachers on the northwest corner of the field were a bit louder than usual thanks to the cheers from the Special Olympics faithful.
"We look forward to this day every year," said Amie Dugan, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Special Olympics Florida. "We've had a partnership with the Bucs for well over a decade, and we have athletes who start calling two, three months in advance asking, 'When is the Bucs camp day, when is the Bucs camp day?' As you can hear, they're huge supporters of the Bucs."
Special Olympics is a national organization committed to empowering people with intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit group helps athletes become healthier and more confident and leads them to be capable leaders both on and off the field.
At the conclusion of practice, a plethora of Buccaneers players including center Jeff Faine, guard Keydrick Vincent and running back Cadillac Williams visited with the Special Olympics group. The visitors happily took photos, requested autographs and high-fived their favorite NFL stars. Of course, that group of "favorites" wouldn't be complete without the Buccaneers cheerleaders, who captured the attention of most of the athletes in attendance.
"I'm excited today to see the cheerleaders... and the football players," explained Michael Tuason Jr., one of the athletes on hand. "Go Bucs!"
Following the autograph session, it was their turn to take the field. The Special Olympics group made their way over to Field One where the Buccaneers' Gatorade Junior Training Camp setup, running back Clifton Smith and a handful of Buccaneers awaited.
Smith was joined by quarterback Josh Johnson, tackle James Lee, safety Corey Lynch, wide receivers Micheal Spurlock, Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter, guard Jeremy Zuttah and General Manager Mark Dominik, who proceeded to coach the local athletes in football drills on the very same field that the Buccaneers train on.
As the Special Olympics day has become an annual tradition for the Buccaneers, so has it too for players like Smith and Johnson, who embrace opportunities like this to give back.
"It's good to see other athletes doing something, no matter what the circumstance is," said Johnson. "For the past three years I've kind of grown to know some of these faces, and they remember me and I remember them, so now it's just coming out here with some friends and just having fun with them. That's what it's all about."
The visiting athletes tackled bags, caught passes and scored touchdowns - that last activity a new addition to this year's training camp that proved to be especially popular - and entertained everyone when they reached pay dirt. As the athletes busted through the pylons on their way to the end zone, they were encouraged by Lee, Smith and Stroughter to showcase their best touchdown celebration. They didn't disappoint.
"I saw the worm, I saw the jerk, I even saw the stanky leg a little bit," joked Smith. "They had a great time."
Tackle James Lee, who was volunteering with Special Olympics for the first time, enjoyed the chance to interact with the athletes and was impressed with the group's enthusiasm and ability.
"Personally, it felt amazing," said Lee. "It made me smile inside. Every kid that came through was excited, they were hyped, they were ready to rush through the drill - I want to sign a couple of them!"
For the representatives from Special Olympics, Wednesday's event epitomized the nonprofit's goal of providing once-in-a-lifetime experiences for their athletes.
"Most people never get to have an experience like this, especially our athletes," said Dugan. "For the kids to come out and show off their sports skills that they've learned through Special Olympics and say, 'I'm an athlete just like these guys,' it's great. There's no better feeling in the world."
As for Smith, the chance to give back highlighted the greater opportunity at hand.
"Athletes hanging out with athletes, it's a special privilege for us to come out and be with them," said Smith. "They're athletes in their own way, so for them to come out here and show off their talents and have fun, it makes you realize how lucky you are to come out here and enjoy this game every day."