Buccaneers Cheerleaders and players helped families shop during the Day of Giving
The long, outdoor hallway that runs between the two buildings that comprise One Buc Place, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters, is referred to as the "breezeway" by the players and staff members that spend their days there.
Wind often gets forced through the narrow passage, whistling between the two buildings on its way from the parking lot to the practice fields.
On Monday morning, however, the chilly winter gusts that blew through the breezeway were intensified by another sound, a loud chorus of "oohs." That sound proved to be the joyous shouts of excitement from the children of 30 local families that were surprised with holiday gifts as part of the second-annual Buccaneers Day of Giving.
These less-fortunate families were selected by the United Way to attend what they thought was going to be a simple tour of the Bucs' state-of-the-art headquarters. But soon after being led into the large auditorium the team meets in every week, the families began to realize they were in for much more than that.
Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips took the microphone and led the crowd through a rendition of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to kick the holiday spirit up a notch, and then a handful of Bucs cheerleaders accompanied by team mascot Captain Fear handed out Hess and Publix gift cards to everyone in attendance.
After that, the second gift of the day was announced to a round of cheers – tickets to the Bucs' contest against the Oakland Raiders this Sunday.
But that was actually just the beginning. Phillips, the cheerleaders, Captain Fear and a handful of other Bucs players – including fullback Byron Storer, quarterback Josh Johnson and long snapper Andrew Economos – led the families outside towards the breezeway.
Stopping just short of the entryway to the long hallway, the families were told that just around the corner was the next surprise of the day.
As the group was finally given the go-ahead to round the bend and see what lay in store, the loud "ooh" that arose wasn't the wind.
The children sprinted down the breezeway to find bicycles, tricycles and other ride-on toys – depending on the age of the recipient – for everyone in attendance.
Children and parents alike couldn't keep the grins from stretching across their faces as they stared in awe at the brand new bikes with their last name affixed to them on a tag. Some of the more excited youngsters immediately hopped on their bikes and began pedaling furiously up and down the breezeway.
Thomas Jolly was on hand with his wife, Denise, and two young children – three-year-old Tysin and nine-year-old Jenna.
Sporting a smile every bit as big as the ones on his kids' faces, Jolly seemed as overwhelmed as the youngsters.
"This is awesome," Jolly said. "I can say this is one of the best Christmases ever. Christmas with my favorite football team – it's awesome. I don't know what to say. We just thought we were going to come down and it was going to be a tour, but then we get here and it's just overwhelming. The kids got bicycles. It's a blessing.
"It's just great. It couldn't have come at a better time of the year. Christmas this year was going to really be tough for us. I lost my job, but now this happened to us – it's awesome."
Amazingly, the surprises didn't end there, as the families were pointed to three large buses parked alongside the practice facility. Those buses were there to take them to a local Target store, where each family was given a $225 gift card to purchase more gifts and make it an even more special holiday season.
The families were joined by the Bucs Student Advisory Board and some more Bucs players at the Target store, including defensive ends Jimmy Wilkerson and Greg Peterson, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, linebacker Adam Hayward and safety Will Allen, to do their shopping.
The toy aisles were a hugely popular destination, as well as the video game section. The families piled their carts high with toys, dolls, music and other goodies, rang up their selections, then piled back onto the buses which took them back to their cars at One Buc Place. There, the kids were given a parting gift of milk and cookies.
The Bucs players in attendance posed for pictures as other shoppers looked on in wonder, but Wilkerson said the event was a pleasure to be a part of.
"I'm just having fun coming in here, shopping, picking out toys for the kids," Wilkerson said. "It's a blessing for me. It kind of brings me back to when I was younger, being in kind of the same situation, really not having the things that you see your friends or your cousins with more money having. To give back, it's a pretty awesome deal.
"The thing that I like to see is the smiles and the excitement that the kids are having when they're picking out their toys. Whether it's from us or it's from their parents, just to see those kids smile, that's what it's all about – allowing them to see the joy in Christmas. A lot of kids around the world can't have the same deals that these kids have right now, but it's like what everybody else says, 'Every little bit helps.'"
Hayward agreed, saying that giving back to less fortunate members of the community was not only something he enjoyed doing, but something he felt obliged to do.
"I'd say a little bit of both," Hayward said. "When you're in a situation like we are, it is kind of your responsibility to give back and help the community, because there are a lot of less fortunate people out there that don't have the ability to do things like we can do.
"At the same time, it's something you want to do. I mean, who doesn't want to come in here? Wearing your jersey is like the greatest thing. You get to go around shopping, where we'd be at home just hanging out right now. But today we're running around doing this, acting like a little kid again."
And that's exactly what the Bucs players did, gleefully helping the little ones pick out some new toys to play with as they were reminded of their younger days.
"When I was looking at all these toys, I was like, 'Man, I didn't have any of these toys!'" Hayward joked. "It's frustrating, because the toys I had weren't as cool as these, but now I come back and buy all the toys I want too."
As much fun as the Bucs had at the event, however, it was the 30 lucky families that came away overwhelmed by the generosity that would brighten this holiday season.
Rochelle Brinson was on hand with her two young sons, three-year-old Demarcus Harris and two-year-old Dartayvious Harris, and the youngsters couldn't keep still as they bustled around the Target store picking out toys.
"Coming over here and actually bringing my kids and letting them see where the Bucs actually get together and meet and come up with their game plans, and being able to get things from the Buccaneers players so they'll actually get to have a real good Christmas, it's been a mind-blowing experience," Brinson said. "It's something that I would never have expected."
Miray Holmes, the Bucs director of community relations, said the event, now in its second year, was a tremendous success and one of the most rewarding of all the Bucs' outreach programs.
"It went so well," Holmes said. "It exceeded our expectations. The players came out and were great, the families, to see them and the kids with the bikes – it was wonderful. To see the kids look at those bikes and run and know that they were theirs, and to see almost the relief of the parents that you know probably couldn't afford to get much for their kids this year. To see the relief and the tears, it was all worth it."
"There are a lot of families out here this time of year, especially this year, that just can't afford to give their kids toys," Holmes continued. "For a parent, there's nothing worse than not being able to give to your kids, so the fact that we could help the parents give their kids a happy holiday season was all worth it. I don't think these kids will ever forget this Christmas. Actually coming to the facility under the guise of a tour, walking around, getting the bikes, getting the gift cards, going to Target, picking out more gifts, walking around Target with players – I just can't imagine that it could get much better than that for these kids."
Looking at the huge smiles on her two sons' faces, Brinson concurred with Holmes' assessment.
"It'll be a Christmas to remember," Brinson said with a smile.