While the young men chosen in the 2012 NFL Draft gathered in Ohio this week for the league's annual Rookie Symposium, the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie class represented the team very well back in the Bay area. Building on an offseason filled with community outreach, 17 of the newest Buccaneers took part in two separate events meant to benefit local youth.
On Monday, the players visited Celebration Station in Clearwater for an afternoon of mini-golf and arcade games with students from Operation Graduate, a program created for at-risk students promoting the importance of education. Last year, the program boasted a 100-percent success rate in helping students graduate high school.
Rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, who happens to be a Clearwater native, was thrilled to be able to help out in his own hometown. "It felt good seeing a couple of familiar faces," said Johnson. "I was able to reconnect with the kids that grew up in the same community that I grew up in."
The players started the afternoon by hitting the mini-golf links, sparking some competition between both players and students.
"They were kind of competitive, cause they are football players, but it was fun," said senior Kewan Jackson.
Following golf, the players cooled off inside the facility with ice cream and arcade games. While the ice cream hit the spot, spending time with the high schoolers was a bigger treat for the rookies.
"You relate to what they are going through because you are not too far removed from it," said safety Sean Baker. "You help them out with what they are going through."
For Johnson, returning home took on a different kind of meaning.
"The biggest thing for me is just showing them that you can do it, that I am real," he said. "A lot of times kids hear guys go to the NFL from their city, from their community, a lot of those guys don't come back and get themselves involved with the community. This is a great opportunity to reach out and connect with those kids."
Once the players had finished playing games, they signed Buccaneers pennants and posed for some pictures before leaving.
"You are used to seeing them on the field and on TV," said Jackson. "[But] they are playing mini-golf with me. That's awesome."
The group's outreach efforts did not stop there. On Wednesday, the rookies hosted a movie outing for students from Webb Middle School to see Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.
Webb is a Renaissance School in Hillsborough County with more than 90 percent of the students receiving free or reduced lunch. Jermarcus Hardrick, who attended a similar school in Mississippi, could relate to what these kids were going through.
"I remember when I was in their shoes," said the rookie tackle. "I remember not being able to do a lot of things, and just to see them happy… and see the smiles, I think it is going to help out."
The middle school students received complimentary popcorn, candy and a soda from the theater, and were paired up with several players to enjoy the movie. Afterwards, the kids took pictures with the players and also received autographed pennants.
"I can tell how much it makes their day," said Hardrick. "I can remember the days when the Memphis Grizzlies would come to our school, or the Ole Miss Rebels would come to our practice, we would talk about it for months."
As the players left, they were able to proudly reflect on their efforts to give back to the Bay area.
"While we are in this position, you might as well help as much as you can," said Baker. "Try and make a difference or impact on some of the kids and just have a good time and have fun with the kids."