The sky was dark but the mood was bright on Wednesday at Busch Gardens in Tampa, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookies joined with kids from the Salesian Boys & Girls Club in an engrossing scavenger hunt throughout the expansive theme park.
Intermittent rain was just another obstacle to overcome for the scavengers, one that only added to the sense of adventure and camaraderie that developed between the young NFL players and their even younger friends. At the end of the whirlwind afternoon, all the participants could remember was a lovely day.
"It was a fun time," said defensive end Quintin Anderson, a 23-year-old NFL newcomer from Rochester, New York who experienced one of the Bay area's top attractions for the first time. "We had a good time with the kids. Busch Gardens is a beautiful park."
The Salesian Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs in an effort to help young people reach their full potential as productive, caring and responsible citizens. The clubs serve nearly four million youth per year, and have alumni that include Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson and the Buccaneers' very own Danny Noble.
"This really takes me back to when I was in the Boys and Girls Club," said Noble, a 23-year-old tight end from Elyria, Ohio. "When I was in the Boys and Girls Club, the most fun thing that we had was high school and college athletes come talk to us."
For much of his young life, seventeen-year-old Renedo Luke has been building the kind of memories that Noble now treasures, and Wednesday's event is sure to rank high on the list.
"I've been with the Boys and Girls Club since I was four years old," said Luke. "What I like about it is it's a place where you can go and be comfortable after school. There's always something to do, people to have fun with, staff that cares about you."
Salesian Assistant Unit Director Cynthia Blake has worked at Boys and Girls Clubs for over 30 years, but Wednesday's outing was particularly memorable for her, too. It marked the first time that a professional football team had been that involved with an organization under her watch.
"It was very nice," said Blake. "The kids were appreciative that they were here to share the day with them."
There are plenty of sights, rides and activities at Busch Gardens to fill up any visitor's day, but the Buccaneers had something special in store for their young guests on Wednesday. The adventure began at the park's Stanleyville Theater, where the players and kids were split into teams. Each group was then given a set of clues that would lead them throughout the park, from the Sesame Street Safari of Fun to the Rhino Rally in the Nairobi section of the park.
The scavenger hunt, with its small groups, was designed to teach the boys and girls the value of trust and working together.
"Throughout the scavenger hunt we were interacting with the kids, and getting to know the kids better, working as a team," said linebacker Lavonte David. "It was all about teamwork."
Along the way, the participants got the chance to stop and see a wide variety of animals, ranging from rare insects and exotic snakes to lions, tigers and gorillas. Of course, the teams made sure to take advantage of a few rides as well, which turned out to be scarier for some players than the kids.
"Today I was extremely afraid of heights," said Anderson. "They said [the Cheetah Ride] didn't go too high off the ground but there were a few dips and turns. I screamed pretty hard."
As the storm clouds opened up and rain covered the park, the teams returned to the theater to complete their hunts, realizing their efforts were part of a much larger puzzle. As each group solved their final clues, they formed words including "flexibility" and "communication," values important in both football and life in general
""From being on a professional team, you have to work together which we all had to do today," said Anderson. "You just have to look to everyone on your team and everyone brings something to the effort to reach a goal."
The day ended with pizza for the group, but not before one final exercise. David, selected from the crowd to join the park staff on stage, held out his arm while a large bird approached from behind. A very large bird. It was a somewhat scary situation, but the rookie linebacker held his ground and allowed the bird to eventually perch on his outstretched arm. To him, the demonstration exemplified one of the day's most important messages.
"The point was about trust," said David. "Growing up, it's hard to trust a lot of people. You've got to communicate, you've got to trust one another. It refers a lot to football too."