The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins will do battle Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium turf, but they weren't the first football stars to dig into the stadium turf on this particular gameday.
In celebration of USA Football Month, the Buccaneers invited thousands of local youth football and cheer participants to be their special guests on Saturday, representing more than 30 organizations throughout Central Florida. In addition to the young men and women enjoying the game from their seats in the stands, a special group of kids took the field in the late afternoon to bring attention to the ever-growing popularity of youth football in the United States.
A group of 26 young players from the Manatee Wildcats Pee Wee chapter of Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. took the field approximately three hours before the Bucs and Dolphins were to face off in order to conduct a ceremonial kickoff for the entire nationwide Pop Warner organization. Pop Warner is the world's largest youth football, cheerleading and dance organization, and each year it formally kicks off its season with a ceremony at one NFL preseason game.
The visiting Manatee players gleefully ran through a half-dozen full-speed kickoffs on the stadium turf, symbolically starting football for nearly half a million Pop Warner participants across the country. Later, those same Manatee Wildcats will join Buccaneer players on the field during the National Anthem.
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been great supporters of the Pop Warner program, and we are thrilled to partner with the team for the 2011 Nationwide Kickoff," said Sam Mutz, National Football Commissioner of Pop Warner. "An estimated seventy percent of NFL players got their start with Pop Warner, so this event is a great way for the kids to connect directly with their NFL role models."
During the coin toss to start Saturday's Bucs-Dolphins game, the Buccaneers will honor five individuals who represent different levels of youth, amateur and professional football: Charles Edward Griffin, Jr., from the Northeast Tampa Pirates; Timothy Baptiste of Gibbs Middle School; Earl Moore IV, a senior at Hillsborough High School; Chaz Hine, an honors student and offensive lineman at the University of South Florida; and former Buccaneers center and three-time Pro Bowler Tony Mayberry.
"The Buccaneers are proud to commemorate the start of the youth football season by hosting the Pop Warner Nationwide Kickoff," said Buccaneers director of community relations Miray Holmes. "This event highlights the significant impact that Pop Warner has on our children, which ties students' athletic and academic pursuits in a positive, structured environment. Pop Warner has set the standard on both a local and national level, and we're honored to feature them in Tampa Bay."
Saturday's celebration is just a small part of the festivities throughout the NFL during the month of August, saluting the goal of USA Football: to teach the game's fundamentals and further instill the sport's character-building values within the youth football community. USA Football is the Official Youth Football Development Partner of the NFL, the NFL Players Association and all 32 NFL teams.
In addition to the NFL's tribute to youth football, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host a wide variety of youth football programs throughout the year, including the Buccaneers' Play 60 Challenge, Gatorade Junior Training Camp and the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick program. These initiatives not only help children and their families enjoy the game of football, but also serve as a resource for coaches to help promote a positive experience for youth football participants. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dedicated to educating children and coaches about the National Football League and enhancing the skills of young athletes both on and off the field. For more information on the Buccaneers' youth football initiatives, visit the "Community" section here on Buccaneers.com.