WR Ike Hilliard converted a boy from the MacDill Air Force Base into a Buc fan Friday afternoon
Ike Hilliard has never been shadowed this well on the practice field before, even when running a set of one-on-ones with Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerbacks.
Early in the Buccaneers' Friday afternoon practice in preparation for Saturday's preseason game at Jacksonville, a pint-sized, six-year-old rooter named Stefan attached himself to Hilliard and put on the clamps as if he was a miniature Champ Bailey.
Perhaps we should rewind, because your first thought upon hearing the above is, presumably, 'What is a six-year-old doing on the Buccaneers' field during a practice?'
First, this wasn't One Buccaneer Place. Making a tradition out of a field trip they first put together a year ago, the Bucs chose to hold their first post-training camp walk-through on a field at MacDill Air Force Base in South Tampa. And Stefan wasn't the only young fan on the field during the practice; the Bucs invited dozens of families that live on the base to come off the sidelines and actually mingle with the players and coaches during their 45 minutes on the field.
A mini-battalion of kids from the base – a good number of them wearing Buccaneer jerseys – took full advantage of the opportunity, mixing right in with the players and coaches just yards away from where the plays were being run at half-speed. Head Coach Jon Gruden signed autographs while the offense was toiling on without him. Wide receiver Joey Galloway escorted one shy-looking girl right up to the edge of the offensive huddle and handed her a football. Wide receiver Mark Jones got down on one knee as a gang of little boys and girls swarmed around him.
And Hilliard found a kindred spirit in little Stefan.
To be sure, Friday's walk-through at MacDill was as much about these connections, about the chance to thank local military men and women for their invaluable service in a very personal manner, as it was about getting ready for the Jaguars. That mission was certainly accomplished, as the players spent at least as much time chatting with and signing autographs for the soldiers and their families that lined the track around the grass and spilled onto the field itself.
"It was hard to concentrate because you had all the kids running around getting autographs and stuff," said guard Davin Joseph with a hearty laugh. "But it's cool because they look at us on TV and they want to get to know us and get autographs. I guess they don't get this a lot, so it's really good. It's interesting and it's fun."
At the end of the walk-through, Colonel Tim Smith came onto the field to present Gruden with a beautiful framed picture of a jet and a commemorative coin. In turn, Gruden handed over his visor and a pair of signed footballs and humbly thanked Smith and all of the military men and women for their dedication to protecting the country.
"This is a great day for the Bucs and a great day for me to reunite with some friends and some guys that make it all happen," said Gruden. "God bless these people. They give us all they have. This was a great deal here today."
After toiling through intense heat during the last week or so of training camp in Central Florida, the Bucs got no break on Friday, as the MacDill field was just as steamy. Still, considering the setting, that too was a reminder of the sacrifices that members of the military make for their country.
"It makes you laugh at the stuff that you have to go through," said Joseph. "We complain about training camp. Hey, it seems like they have a training camp every day, 365, 24 hours a day. It's something you definitely have to admire about these people."
Gruden thought that the trip might hold a few other lessons for his players, as well.
"This is the second time we've been here, and to see the amount of people that basically give their lives to fighting for our country, it blows your mind," he said. "It really is an awesome display of unity here, of discipline and overall teamwork that makes it all work. This is a great experience for all of us. Hopefully our players got something out of it."
Judging from the fascinated faces of the kids mixed in with practice and the wide smiles of the base parents standing nearby, the MacDill families definitely got something out of the Buccaneers' visit. There were autographs by the hundreds, certainly, and team staffers also handed out such Buc trinkets as roster cards, cheerleader posters, stickers, pencils, magnets, window clings and schedule cards. Those kids who weren't in Buccaneer jerseys might be asking for one soon.
"Football hopefully gives them a little relief, a little bit of mental relief from the grind that they're going through," said Gruden. "If we can convert them all to Buccaneers fans, good for us. We need all the help we can get."
Which brings us back to little Stefan. Notice we didn't call him a Buccaneer rooter in introducing him above. As Hilliard quickly found out, Stefan is a Titans fan. He claimed at first to have little interest in the Buccaneers, but Hilliard spent the next 45 minutes trying to sway his loyalties.
After a bit of persuasion, Stefan wavered a little bit, and eventually Hilliard discovered the secret of the boy's rooting interest. As it turned out, Stefan isn't terribly interested in Vince Young or Keith Bulluck or any of the specifics of being a Tennessee Titans fan. Rather, he plays for a youth team named the Titans. In the end, Stefan agreed that he would now root for the Buccaneers…against every team except Tennessee.
"I think at the end of the day, we got him converted," said Hilliard as he stepped back on the team bus just before it was set to depart.
Even in a simple walk-through practice, there were victories to be won.