Over the past two seasons, NFL teams across the nation have actively embraced the league's "Play 60" initiative, working to combat childhood obesity by encouraging students to be active for at least 60 minutes a day. This is most commonly done in a school setting, with Play 60 events demonstrating how facilities and curriculum can be used to promote physical activity.
At some schools, however, carrying out the "Play 60" motto is easier said than done.
Take George Washington Carver Exceptional Center in Tampa. When it comes to PE, students at Carver have had to be flexible. The school's parking lot doubles as its track, for instance, and the brick wall surrounding the outdoor fountain is used for fitness exercises.
Thanks to the Buccaneers and another chapter in the Play 60 program, however, that's going to change.
On Thursday, Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, along with team cheerleaders and staff, joined students, teachers and Hillsborough County school officials at Carver to dedicate the team's "Play 60 Zone." The Zone includes new athletic equipment and, most significantly, a new court cover for the school's outdoor recreation area to provide shade and wind resistance for students during their physical education periods.
Designated by a white sign mounted on the school's wall, the zone will encourage students to participate in fitness activities during their free periods. All-weather mats, chin-up bars and pull-up bars will soon be installed as well, providing a safe, inviting area for Carver's kids to stay in shape.
Morris, who has focused his community outreach efforts on promoting academic achievement throughout Tampa Bay, spoke to students and teachers about physical fitness as it relates to educational development. His message also centered on making positive decisions, encouraging each student to make the most of his or her opportunities.
"Everybody in this room deserves to be proud of themselves, everybody in this room has an opportunity," said Morris. "I'm from a rough area myself – Newark, New Jersey – and I thought I had to sit in a crowd and look mean too. It took awhile to realize that I was blessed, not because of what I've done by myself, but because of the people around me who've helped me with the opportunities and provided things like this.
"You've already taken the first step. You're not on the street corners, you're in school. You're not in jail, or locked up. You're taking advantage of the opportunity right here in this school and you're doing a great job with that. We provided some shelter for you today, to go out and be able to play and get your 60 minutes of activities in, whether it's push-ups and dips or whatever the case may be."
Dr. Dale Nelson, principal at Carver, believed Morris was the perfect role model to reach out to his students.
"I think his background was very strong for these students, not only the fact that he's the head coach of the Buccaneers, but that he's walked the walk and talked the talk for these students," said Nelson. "He's a real person to them, and he's able to walk around and talk to them at their level."
Carver Exceptional Center, named after noted African-American scientist and educator Dr. George Washington Carver, was built in 1909. The school first served as an elementary school for its highly mixed Latin and African-American neighborhood before transitioning to serving primarily African-American students. In subsequent years, the school operated as a high school, a junior high school, an early childhood/kindergarten center and an alternative school. Carver has been an exceptional center for students of various disabilities for the past six years and is part of the Hillsborough County Public School system.
"We're trying to let our students know that it's okay to strive for excellence," said Nelson. "They can reach above and beyond where they come from, from these hard streets in this part of Tampa, from their backgrounds of trouble that they've had in their life, not only legally but otherwise in school."
On Thursday, that striving spirit was on display. Before the ribbon-cutting, students and staff performed an artistic talent showcase, including an African-dance, a positive rap and a reenacted speech by President Barack Obama. Local officials on hand for the event, including Gwen Luney, an assistant superintendent for Hillsborough County schools, referenced the positive impact the Buccaneers have had on schools such as Carver.
"This is a new relationship," said Luney. "The Bucs have been in town since 1976… and our relationship with the Buccaneers and [Director of Community Relations] Miray Holmes and many members of the Buccaneers staff has just come about since Coach Morris has been the head coach. I really want to thank the Buccaneers for adopting Hillsborough County and for making those things that have already happened and the things that will happen in the future."
The court cover at Carver is the second "Play 60 Zone" the Buccaneers have unveiled in Tampa. In 2010, the team sponsored a similar court cover at LaVoy Exceptional Center, a school for students with autism spectrum disorder, visual impairments, physical handicaps, emotional/behavioral disabilities and significant cognitive disabilities. The zones are designed to enhance the specific recreation and physical education needs at select local schools.
"It's all about 60 minutes of play, it's about getting it every day," said Morris. "It's about having the ability [to fight] heart disease, getting outside and getting our kids playing again. We're in the video game age, we're in the TV-watching age, and we need to get back out to the community so we can get our community fit and get us back to where we need to be."
At Carver, that message was not ignored.
"Exercise is a key in growing up in life," said David Cesar, a student at Carver. "If you don't exercise, then your body won't get the proper workout that you need. And you've got to strive for success. No matter what's going on, you've got to keep striving."
Added Casandra Wells, one of Cesar's classmates: "This is something for me to remember. It's something to talk about on the streets, instead of something negative, something positive."
For Nelson, the entire scene on Thursday was a dream come true.
"The kids are so excited to be able to come out here and do the exercises, and later on gymnastics and wrestling," said Nelson. "If the Bucs didn't do this for us, we wouldn't have had it done. It will not go unused and will not be forgotten."