In late May, when the Highland Pines Cougars youth football team discovered that more than $3,000 worth of their equipment had been stolen, the situation looked grim. The Cougars program is located in the Jackson Heights community and many of its players come from low-income families. If the stolen gear couldn't be replaced, the team faced the possibility of forfeiting its upcoming season.
Several days later, the situation grew even worse, as the Carrollwood Cardinals were robbed of $7,500 worth of equipment. Suddenly dozens more youth risked sitting out organized football this year due to the selfish acts of local criminals.
Fortunately, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers heard about the two thefts and sprang into action.
On Monday, Buccaneers players, cheerleaders and staff visited the Jackson Heights Youth Education Town Center, home of the Cougars, and presented the Highland Pines squad with a check for $3,500 to replace their equipment. On hand for the presentation were kicker Connor Barth and linebacker Adam Hayward, as well as City Councilman Frank Reddick, team coaches, and a group of young athletes who will benefit from the donation.
"Sixty percent of our kids don't pay to play," said Orlando Gudes, director of the Unity Youth Football Conference. "We have to find sponsorship for them to play. So it's a blessing that the Buccaneers were able to help us recoup this."
The Buccaneer players obviously love football, and were thus eager to help, but they were more interested in righting an injustice.
"For somebody to do that, to take from kids, that hurts," said Hayward. "If I was in that situation, meeting an NFL player, to see that they cared and wanted to come out here and help return the stuff to us, it would be a memory that I couldn't forget."
The Unity Youth Football League aims at providing children from lower-income families with fun and safe opportunities to enjoy football and cheerleading while developing good sportsmanship and physical fitness. On Monday, the kids had a chance to do just that, as Barth and Hayward also led the young athletes in agility and tackling stations.
Hayward expressed his sympathy to the group after the drills were complete, saying, "I apologize for whoever did this, because you all are just kids, and that's shameful."
But the Buccaneers' weren't finished. Following their visit to Jackson Heights, the team traveled to Carrollwood to meet the Cardinals, who had lost more than 50 helmets and 60 shoulder pads, as well as game pants and other equipment. Buccaneers tight end Dallas Clark, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Dekoda Watson presented to the team a check for $7,500 to cover the Cardinals' losses.
"My first thought was, 'What kind of fundraiser can we do as an organization to raise this kind of money?'" said Carrollwood Athletic Director Eddie Polk. "I didn't even think of donations. When I started getting phone calls from the Buccaneers, it was just a blessing. I couldn't believe it. The Buccaneers really stepped up and did a great job."
For Polk, it wasn't just the cost of equipment that the Buccaneers helped save, but the Cardinals' whole season. The Tampa Bay Youth Football League has offered an organized football and cheerleading program for Bay area children since 1968 and teaches the fundamentals of good citizenship, character development, and healthy living to youth in a positive, structured environment.
"[With] this loss, we wouldn't have recouped any of the equipment, we wouldn't have had a season this year," said Polk. "We depend on registration fees and fundraising to just pay the bills every year. This would have been devastating."
Following the presentation, Clark instructed athletes on footwork drills while McCoy and Watson tested the Cardinal players' receiving skills…and subsequent touchdown dances. Meanwhile, Buccaneers cheerleaders led a young cheer squad in a variety of routines on the sideline. All involved were appreciative of the Buccaneers' leadership.
"It made me feel great," said 14-year-old Cardinals quarterback Nate Deantley. "I'm so happy that they're out here to support us and to help us out."
For the players, being able to give back after such an incident was important, both to the youth football team and the Buccaneers organization.
"I think it just shows you the type of people the Glazer family [is], to step up in this unfortunate situation," said Clark. "It's just a sad situation, but watching the Glazer family and the whole Bucs family organization step up and help these kids, it just show how they want to give back to the community.
"And it's not just about showing up and handing over a check. It's really taking a part in it and just getting to say hi to these kids and just encouraging them to keep working hard."
Most of the Bucs players admitted that they enjoyed the events as much or more than the kids themselves.
"The kids had a lot of fun, but I kind of think I got them beat," said McCoy. "I had a blast today."
Added Hayward: "I remember when I started playing. I mean, this is where it is fun. This is football at its best."
Monday's excitement wouldn't be complete without one final surprise. Not only were the teams able to replace the stolen equipment, but they also received a special invitation from the Buccaneers. On August 24, during Tampa Bay's preseason matchup with the New England Patriots at Raymond James Stadium, the two youth squads will serve as the official flag-runners during team introductions. That's appropriate, as the entire NFL will be celebrating USA Football Month that weekend, highlighting the league's support of youth football.
"Words can't describe how grateful I am to the Buccaneers, the Glazer family, and these players out here doing a great job with these kids," said Polk. "It's just a tremendous thing. When I told the kids the Bucs were going to come out, they couldn't believe it, they were shocked. I really do appreciate it."