A group of young athletes victimized by criminals will be equipped to take the field this summer thanks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In response to the thoughtless acts of vandalism, theft and arson recently carried out on the Tampa Bay Lions youth football program, the Buccaneers presented the team with a $15,000 donation on Thursday to support players, cheerleaders and youth coaches in desperate need of help.
Buccaneers players Demar Dotson, Ted Larsen and Michael Smith, as well as Buccaneers Cheerleaders and staff, visited the team's practice field in East Tampa to lead athletes from the Tampa Bay Lions through football and cheer drills and present the team with the donation.
"I don't think we would've had a great season had the Bucs not stepped in and other stepping in to help us," said Cookie Dorsey, president and founder of the Tampa Bay Lions. "We wouldn't be where we are today. I can't see our kids having a great season at all."
Over the past three weeks, the Lions have lost thousands of dollars in football equipment, originating from an act of burglary in late May when the team's helmets, shoulder pads and other field equipment were stolen. On June 8, it was discovered that the Lions' storage unit had been robbed once more, and on June 12, arsonists set fire to the area, destroying any contents remaining in storage.
"I was really taken back by it all," said Dorsey. "It was not easy. I am calm today, but those three events were not easy as the President, because in my mind, the season was right around the corner and I'm wondering how we can get back what has been taken from the kids. I did not have an idea how that was going to happen."
Thursday's donation will help the Lions recoup items lost from the recent acts of vandalism, including funding for 125 new football jerseys, 100 shoulder pads and football pants, 75 helmets, a temporary storage unit and a membership to USA Football's Heads Up Football program. USA Football, the official youth football development partner of the Buccaneers and the NFL, recently launched Heads Up Football, a player safety initiative that promotes concussion awareness, coaching education, proper equipment fitting and a set of recommended standards for parents, coaches and leagues.
"Kids are the future," said Dotson. "I'm sure they were disappointed coming back here and seeing that their stuff was stolen. As we come out here and give back, it gives these kids hope and lets them know that people care about them. It's just a great thing."
The Tampa Bay Lions, a 150-member youth football team for children ages 4-14, participate in the Mid-Florida Football and Cheerleading Conference (MFFCC). The MFFCC, founded in 1997, is represented in five counties throughout Florida and has grown to include more than 30 leagues, with the goal of providing safe, structured environments for youth football and cheerleading participants.
"I started when I was in youth football, too," said Smith. "I understand where they're coming from. Somebody had to steal it and burn down everything, that's obviously not good at all, but right now feels good. I'm glad the kids are smiling out here, doing activities with us, and trying to do better for themselves."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play an active role in youth development through a variety of health and education initiatives with players, coaches, cheerleaders and staff. With an increased emphasis on youth health and wellness, the Buccaneers' PLAY 60 Challenge and BUCS CARE School Fitness Zones help teach students the importance of nutrition and exercise, renewing the team's commitment to support youth charitable causes throughout the Bay Area.
"The kids are back to normal," added Dorsey. "We will have helmets, shoulder pads, new jerseys, everything for gameday they will have, so we're excited.
"The kids – they'll be ready."