On Saturday night, Jack Denney was a veteran in more than one sense of the word.
A former member of the United States Navy, Denney was enlisted in 1948 as part of the last group of American citizens to be drafted into the military. He served in the Navy for a number of years and currently resides at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.
Denney was at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a night practice at their usual gameday home, and as the players took the field Denney approached the sideline to get a closer look. He was joined by more than 30 other patients from Haley, the majority of whom were enjoying this up-close-and-personal experience for the first time.
Not Denney, who was a veteran of this exercise, as well. The opportunity to see his favorite Buccaneers up close has now become a tradition.
"I kept thinking about the first year and I couldn't describe it," said the Navy veteran. "We see some of the players come up to the nursing home at the VA here in Tampa, and coming back to the stadium the second time is a lot better. We know a lot of them and they know us. It's an inspiration."
Denney first met Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik a year ago when the team invited the military veterans to enjoy the team's fan-friendly practice at the stadium. A few weeks later, the two reconnected when Dominik took defensive tackle Roy Miller, defensive end Kyle Moore and wide receiver Maurice Stovall to visit the patients at Haley.
As Denney's familiarity with the organization has increased, so too has his appreciation for the team, which has provided him with valuable experiences and memories.
"I feel like it's an honor and a privilege to come here and be invited by the Bucs organization," said Denney. "They are so good to us - the owners, the general manager - I can't explain it."
Dominik, whose family includes several former members of the military, has little trouble explaining his reasons for inviting the Haley residents out to practice each year.
"It's important that we all realize the sacrifice that our military provides for us," he said. "Any time we can bring attention through the organization to what they do, not only active but the reserve military and our veterans, the men and women that have served in our country already, that's a big benefit to me to make sure that our community doesn't ever forget all the freedom and the opportunity that they provide."
Those making their first visit to a Buccaneers' practice enjoyed the experience as well..
"It's pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, something that they possibly wouldn't have done with their injuries," said Jeanene Griffin, recreation therapist at James A. Haley. "But it gets them out of the hospital, gets them out of those four walls into the community. It's amazing for them."
While the 2010 night practice incorporated more engaging elements for fans than the year before, including a skills competition, "live" goal line sessions and a fireworks show, the most noticeable difference to Denney in this year's event was reflected by the attendance.
"There are more people," exclaimed Denny. "Absolutely, the back stands weren't even full last year, but they're full this year and the people are just jolly, jolly, jolly. They're so nice, everybody's open, the cheerleaders are coming over with us, the crowd - I can't believe the people that are here."
Indeed, the most popular unit on Saturday among the vets may have been the cheerleaders, despite a strong showing by the offense on the practice field. The squad certainly found a big fan in Denney, who captured the cheerleaders' attention for much of the night.
"Allowing them to get outside of the hospital, allowing them to push their chairs again, just to have normal conversations, for someone to talk to them versus talking to their family members allows them to feel somewhat normal again as a part of society," said Griffin. "It really helps their confidence, and I hope that they can go back and have the confidence to know that they can still do certain things in their lives too and be active and be as involved as any other person."
As the visit to night practice has become a tradition for Denney, so too has it for Dominik and the Buccaneers, who want to continue to take advantage of the opportunity to recognize those who have sacrificed for the nation's freedom.
"It's our chance to really say thank you from our football team and for really the fans the way they stood up and cheered for them, it was another way to say thank you for what they've done," said Dominik. "It's a great combination, it benefits everybody, and that's why we loved it and why it was our second annual time bringing them out and why we're looking forward to doing it again next year."
The aforementioned ovation was led by Dominik, who made a point of acknowledging the veterans in attendance during a live interview on the stadium's BucVision. For the group battling physical, intellectual or emotional injuries, that moment was icing on the cake.
"I think it's the greatest thing in the world that these people come here to celebrate their team," said Denney. "That they recognized us, you don't know what it means to us. It's unreal."