If you're searching for the Bay area school with the most Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spirit, look no further than Longleaf Elementary.
Longleaf definitely loves the Bucs, and the Bucs took time to return that love on Tuesday as another "Play 60" initiative came to a satisfying conclusion.
Every Friday, students and teachers at Longleaf Elementary in New Port Richey sport their favorite Buccaneers t-shirts, jerseys and football gear. Signs and banners hang from the walls touting Longleaf's affection for the team. And earlier this year, during the NFL's "Back to Football Friday" contest, school staff organized an entire day of activities around the NFL's Play 60 initiative, including a parade, classes on healthy diets, football drills and even a school-wide spelling of the word "BUCS" by students on the playing fields.
Longleaf was one of more than 5,500 schools across the nation to submit photos and answer essay questions for the contest on NFLRUSH.com, which encouraged schools to demonstrate passion for their NFL team while incorporating youth health and wellness into their celebration. One school in each of the 32 NFL markets and 2 non-NFL markets was selected and named the local NFL Play 60 Super School.
On Tuesday, to no one's surprise, Longleaf Elementary was celebrated as the winning school in the Buccaneers' area.
A rousing reception along Longleaf's front entrance greeted safety Sean Jones, linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers cheerleaders and Captain Fear, all of whom traveled to New Port Richey to congratulate students and teachers on their victory. As the Buccaneer representatives unloaded from a bus, dozens of students erupted in cheers while the local Mitchell High School band, on hand for the Buccaneers visit, broke out in song.
"The energy is high," said Stroughter from the scene. "I know Sean Jones and Tyrone McKenzie, they're loving it, just the atmosphere here, the cheerleaders and Captain Fear. It's just a lot of fun and I'm glad we had this opportunity to come out here."
Added McKenzie, a Bay area native and former USF player: "I'm overwhelmed. To go out there and see that, everybody in red, Buc-ed out, it was crazy. I feel like I'm in college walking to the stadium. You have the fans on the street welcoming you when you're walking into the stadium. It's great and overwhelming."
Following a brief meet-and-greet session with school officials, the players and cheerleaders proceeded to the cafeteria where a sea of red and white awaited them. There, Jones, McKenzie and Stroughter spoke on the NFL's Play 60 campaign, reinforcing the importance of getting at least 60 minutes of exercise a day.
"We all play video games," noted Jones, "but we all have to be very active, too. Whether you play football, baseball, tag, whatever it is, it's important to get outside and play."
McKenzie emphasized that staying active at an early age can play a big role in reaching one's goals in the future.
"You see this young guy right here?" McKenzie said as he pointed to a student nearby. "He could be a starting quarterback in the NFL. But in order to do that, he's going to have to go outside and play. That's how we as professional athletes got to where we are today – by playing and staying active."
Following the players' remarks, students were given the opportunity to ask questions. Popular topics: What players do to stay fit in the offseason (lift weights and run), what kind of food they eat (fruits, vegetables and proteins) and what muscles they often stretch (hamstrings, though every muscle is important).
But the big news of the day was hand-delivered by Jones and McKenzie to school Principal Arlene Bodden, who then shared with the students that their Buccaneers spirit had paid off in a very big way.
A giant check for $10,000 was presented by the Buccaneers to Longleaf's physical education department, where new playground equipment, an expanded swimming program and an enhanced nutrition curriculum will likely get a much-needed boost.
"They are trying to cut PE from a lot of schools; I know in California, where I'm from, that's the first thing that's going in the budget cut," said Stroughter. "[We're here] to let them know that it's very important to continue with exercises and things like that, and just to keep them in shape; mind, body and soul."
Teachers, staff and school members alike shared a similar reaction to the mornings' events: absolute joy.
"It's almost too much to comprehend," said Donna Qualtiere, the school's physical education teacher. "It's just been an awesome day."
The Bucs' visit wouldn't be complete without putting their message into action. Following the assembly, the players and cheerleaders joined a group of 30 students for the Ultimate Physical Education Class on the school's blacktop and playing fields. While cheerleaders and Captain Fear led students in a hula hoop contest, McKenzie challenged others to weight lunges and push-ups. Stroughter showed off his expert jump-roping skills and Jones took part in relay races. Though the chilly morning air might have kept people inside on some days, this group remained undeterred in their quest to stay active and have fun.
"It's going great, out here, playing 60 and having fun with the kids," said Stroughter. "I'm having a lot of fun just to be out here. It's a great honor not only for the kids, but for us also."
Added McKenzie: "I think that hits them hard to show them that it's possible, especially with me being a local guy. Going out there in PE and doing the stuff that you do there, that's taking the first steps to where I'm at today. One day we're all going to be old and not able to play this game and someone's got to come and take our spots. So helping PE continue to go forward with Play 60 is huge."
At the conclusion of the PE class, the student body reconvened at the front driveway to wish the Bucs well on their departure. As drums and trumpets resonated in the background, a cheer of "Thank you Bucs" filled the air. For the students at Longleaf Elementary, the Bucs' message will not soon be forgotten.
"I think [this] is something that they will remember for a lifetime," said Qualtiere. "This has just been a blessing. Very few kids get this opportunity."