Quarterback Josh Freeman is used to the hero treatment, as are most of his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates. The thunderous crowds at Raymond James Stadium every other Sunday are reminders of the spotlight that shines continuously on those who play in the National Football League.
On Tuesday, Freeman and several other Buccaneers turned that spotlight around, offering their own praise to less-heralded but certainly very deserving group, the true national heroes who reside at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.
In honor of Friday's Veterans Day, Freeman and fellow Bucs Quincy Black, Gerald McCoy and Kellen Winslow spent time with servicemen and women recovering from injury and illness at the veterans' hospital. Behind the lead of General Manager Mark Dominik, and with Buccaneers cheerleaders also on hand, the group hosted an ice cream social for patients in the facility's Spinal Cord Injury Center.
"This was a great opportunity," Freeman said. "I was thrilled with the chance to come here because these guys are out risking their lives and serving our country. There's nothing better than coming out and honoring these guys and spending some time with them."
Dominik joined the visiting players in presenting the hospital with a financial donation to help fund special outings and experiences for local veterans as part of their recreation therapy.
"It's important for our team and really our community to say thank you to the men and women who have made sacrifices for our country," Dominik said.
The Buccaneers group paid tribute to the military members and their families by visiting with patients young and old and signing autographs during the ice cream social.
"Veterans Day is such a big day for us here," said Mary Donovan, recreation therapist at the hospital. "It has motivated [the patients], and the room is busting. We want them to be inspired, and the Buccaneers have done that here today."
Dominik is no stranger to the patients at Haley, as he makes frequent visits throughout the year. Along with regularly volunteering at the hospital's "Helping Hands" dinners, he has hosted veterans at training camp and Buccaneers home games to help strengthen the team's bond with local armed forces.
"We had a really a good group of guys here today," Dominik said. "I wanted to show the Haley Hospital and our veterans that our entire team – including our stars – is really committed to our military."
That commitment has undoubtedly grown stronger since Dominik was named general manager in January of 2009. Having a father and brother who both served in the Navy, Dominik has focused much of his community outreach on working with war veterans and all branches of the military. Training camp, his game day ticket program, special events and community appearances are just some of the ways he supports service personnel throughout the Bay area.
Tuesday's visit was just the beginning of the team's efforts to honor Veterans Day this week. On Sunday, November 13, when the Buccaneers host the Houston Texans, the team will celebrate the 70th anniversary of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Military-themed elements will be prevalent throughout Raymond James Stadium and the family of Cpl. Michael Nicholson will serve as the Buccaneers' honorary captains. Cpl. Nicholson, 22, is a Tampa native currently recovering at the National Naval Medical Center in Washington D.C. The local Marine suffered severe trauma, including the loss of three limbs, while serving our country in Afghanistan.
Though veterans at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital were thrilled to meet the Buccaneers during Tuesday's visit, for players like Freeman the pleasure was all theirs. The visiting players certainly knew who the heroes in the room were.
"Our whole goal today was to show these guys how much they mean to us and how much we appreciate what they've done for the country," Freeman said. "You just walk away from here with a greater appreciation for these guys, their families and their sacrifice."