Growing up, Mike Williams always wanted to meet a professional football player. A visit from a pro athlete would have served as a major inspiration to the young Williams or, at the very least, brightened up his day.
Williams remembers that feeling now that he is among the ranks of pro football players. Thus, the up-and-coming star receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appreciates the impact he can have on children who walk in the same shoes he once did. Earlier this week, Williams seized the opportunity to do just that.
On Tuesday, Williams was one of sixteen Buccaneers Rookie Club members who visited Metropolitan Ministries to spend time with kids and help prepare for the Ministries' "Holiday Assistance Program." This critically important annual program provides food, toys and other services to less fortunate members of the Tampa Bay community.
The rookies who joined Williams on their day off to give back on community were tackle Will Barker, wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe, guard Brandon Carter, safety Cody Grimm, tackle Derek Hardman, defensive end George Johnson, guard Ted Larsen, cornerback Myron Lewis, fullback Erik Lorig, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, tight end Nathan Overbay, wide receiver Preston Parker, linebacker Dekoda Watson, defensive tackle Al Woods and defensive end Doug Worthington. The group of rookies spent several hours at the Ministries, taking part in what has become an annual Thanksgiving tradition for the newest group of Buccaneers.
In order to lend a hand – or 32 hands – the group first reported to a collection of huge tents dubbed the "Holiday Center," where the community outreach effort is housed. The players were given a brief explanation of the Ministries' services and then taken to the Outreach Center to complete a variety of tasks. Pitching tents, serving snacks, sorting foods and cutting turkeys were just some of the "to do" items the Buccaneers crossed off the Ministries' list.
Metropolitan Ministries' Holiday program begins on Friday and will last through Christmas. Needy members of the Tampa Bay community can register with Metropolitan Ministries to take part and benefit in a number of ways.
Under the large tents, families and individuals will be able to visit a grocery store-style area full of shelves of various food and pick what they would like to eat. Or, instead, they can opt for pre-packaged boxes stuffed with all types of food. They can also pick up a holiday turkey or chicken to enjoy, receive a warm meal on Thanksgiving, get a medical checkup, select donated toys to give as gifts to their children, enjoy various forms of entertainment to lift their holiday spirits and much more.
In fact, the overall effort is expected to serve more than 30,000 families and help more than 150,000 less-fortunate individuals before all is said and done – something that impressed and inspired the Buccaneers volunteers.
"It's nice to just give back and help out whenever you can," said Larsen, a native of nearby Palm Harbor, Florida. "[It's great] just knowing that the food is going to a good place and you're able to help somebody out that needs help."
The Bucs' newest members weren't the only ones lending a hand at Metropolitan Ministries on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the Buccaneers Women's Organization, made up of wives and fiancées of Bucs players, coaches and front office members, stopped by the facility to sort and prepare food for the holiday program.
"We value the Buccaneers organization and the Glazer Family Foundation so much," said Ana Maria Mendez, public relations coordinator for Metropolitan Ministries. "We've partnered with [the Buccaneers] for almost twenty years. Having the team and women come down, volunteer and learn about Metropolitan Ministries, it's a wonderful way to see how [the team] is invested in the community and giving back to the community for those who are less fortunate."
For the wide receiver Parker, who like many of the rookies was visiting the Ministries for the first time, the event was a rewarding experience.
"This is my first time coming here and to participate in something like this makes me feel better about myself," said Parker. "I didn't know anything about it and what we were going to do, but now that I'm here, I'm happy because even if you can make a difference in one child's life, that's all that matters – just to change one person's life or how they are thinking."
The rookies also had the opportunity to fine tune their arts-and-crafts skills, spending an hour with children from the Ministries' after-school program. Carter, whose hair is styled into a flame-red Mohawk, complemented his look with an Indian headdress, while others such as Lewis chose to create a colorful pilgrim hat to celebrate the upcoming holiday.
"I was able to color in between the lines and go back to my kindergarten days," said Lewis. "Helping out little kids next to me with their hats is just something to have fun with and have a good time."
Lewis not only enjoyed spending time with the children but also serving snacks and popping popcorn from a real popcorn machine, another first for the rookie.
"That was fun for me to do because that was the first time actually putting the popcorn inside the machine and the butter and then watching it turn and pop," said Lewis. "I was doing it with Mike Williams and we were having a good time hanging out with all the people and being able to serve them was a good deal."
Lorig jumped at the opportunity to serve popcorn throughout the Ministries, making the rounds every few minutes with a fresh popcorn tray. While it felt good to provide snacks to the clients, the fullback admitted that there might have been an added bonus to taking on such a duty.
"I taste-tested every batch," Lorig confessed. "Each one was great."
For the Buccaneers' rookie class as a whole, the afternoon opened their eyes to the needs of their community and also allowed them to share a valuable experience with their teammates.
"It's a good thing for us to get closer to the community as a group and as a whole, so later down the years when hopefully when we are still here playing for the Buccaneers, we can still be able to actually reach out to the community," said Johnson. "I didn't have this when I was younger, to be around athletes, so to actually make a difference in a little kid's life or someone working in the kitchen, it feels really good to do that."
And as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, Tuesday's event also served as a reminder of the precious opportunity the Buccaneers rookies have before them.
"I'm thankful that I'm in this position to give back and I'm thankful for being with the Bucs," said Williams. "Having this opportunity to come out here with these kids and see their faces, it's like a whole different world for me. Those are the things I'm thankful for."