On a night that celebrated Tampa Bay sports and the region's charitable support for the community, the Bay area took the opportunity to return the favor to someone who has dedicated the last 16 years to serving the town he calls home.
Ronde Barber, who retired just two weeks ago to conclude an illustrious 16-season career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was invited to Thursday night's Third Annual Sneaker Soiree for what he expected to be a relaxing evening to support the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
What Barber didn't expect was that he'd walk away with two honors- the award for Tampa Bay Buccaneers Moment of the Year, and a Tampa token only a select few receive: the official Key to the City.
The event, emceed by award-winning sports personality Jenn Brown, included a plethora of awards and a star-studded list of Tampa Bay celebrity guests, such as 2013 Buccaneers Pro Bowlers Doug Martin and Gerald McCoy; the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis; and an assembly of head coaches including the Buccaneers' Greg Schiano, the Rays' Joe Maddon, the Lightning's Jon Cooper, and from the University of South Florida, Football Coach Willie Taggart and Basketball Coach Stan Heath.
As Brown introduced the honor for Buccaneers Moment of the Year, it was conceivable to think that McCoy or Martin would walk away with the distinguished award. But as highlights from the 2012 season rolled across the screen, it was evident that a former teammate who had celebrated his 200th consecutive start by collecting five tackles, a sack, and an interception of Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton was due for a pleasant surprise.
"To get to 200 [consecutive] starts is kind of funny to think about now," said an emotional Barber at the podium. "I couldn't imagine not doing my job every single day."
For No. 20 fanatics, it was no surprise that the day's performance would result in his ninth NFC Defensive Player of the Week award. But in classic Barber fashion on Thursday night, he directed his acceptance speech away from himself, instead thanking others for their support. .
"Throughout the entire process, the team and Mark Dominik, the whole new coaching staff, they really embraced me and I will forever be thankful for that," Barber said.
Before exiting the stage, Barber would receive yet another surprise, as Sports Commission Executive Director Rob Higgins revealed that a special guest was seated on the far side of the room. Barber walked across the crowd to find his mother, who had secretly flown in from out of town to join her son for the special ceremony.
As if that wasn't enough, the spotlight would find him once more before the night's festivities came to an end. During the program's closing scene, in which the stage had been revamped to replicate the bar from the popular television show Cheers, Cooper, Maddon and Schiano casually sat atop stools and shared anecdotes on their coaching philosophies and career paths. The introspective on their personal histories provided guests with unique and comical insights into three of Tampa Bay's sports leaders, when Barber suddenly appeared on stage to announce it was "closing time."
And to the crowd's delight, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn quickly appeared at the podium as well, as he grabbed the microphone to speak a bit more on the veteran's 16-year career.
"Every Sunday on the field of Raymond James and the fields all over this country, he has led by example," said Buckhorn. "He didn't talk a lot about him, he didn't ask for anything. He showed up to play the game that he loved. That quiet leadership, that quiet professional. It wasn't about what you said, it was about what you did in between the lines on the field and what you did off the field," Buckhorn noted.
"We will never forget you," Buckhorn added, before presenting a wide-eyed Barber with a large golden key.
With a an affectionate combination of wit and candor shining through, Barber joked about former Buccaneers kicker Matt Bryant receiving a key to the city in 2006 from Mayor Pam Iorio after converting a game-winning 62-yard field goal – "Everyone forgets that I returned two interceptions for touchdowns that day, first!" – before soaking in the moment and delivering the final message of the night.
"I think you all know my affection and my love for this town," Barber said. "The people that embraced me in this town, you've got as much to do with it as anybody. So thank all of you."