With lightsaber in hand, Darth Vader patrolled the compound, taking each step with direction and purpose. As he walked, crowds of people parted for the iconic symbol of evil, who appeared more scary and intimidating than ever at 6-4 and nearly 300 pounds.
Until, that is, he removed his mask to sign autographs, pose for pictures and reveal an ear-to-ear grin.
On Tuesday night, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Gerald McCoy – or, on this night, the Dark Lord of the Sith – took a little time off from haunting opposing backfields to bring a spooky surprise to the patrons at Lowry Park for the Buccaneers' third annual Halloween Celebration.
McCoy's efforts to impersonate the classic Star Wars character were part of a full night of fun hosted by the Buccaneers and Publix Super Markets. The third overall draft pick was not alone, as he was joined by a large group of fellow Buc rookies, including tackle Will Barker, wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Dezmon Briscoe, guard Brandon Carter, defensive end Brandon Gilbeaux, safety Cody Grimm, tackle Derek Hardman, defensive end George Johnson, center Ted Larsen, cornerback Myron Lewis, fullback Erik Lorig, punter Robert Malone, wide receiver Preston Parker, linebacker Dekoda Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams. The Bucs gathered in costume at Lowry Park to celebrate the Halloween season with a large group of kids from around the Bay area.
With the help of the United Way, Buccaneer staff members, cheerleaders, players and team mascot Captain Fear welcomed more than 800 underprivileged children to the zoo to enjoy animal exhibits, arts and crafts, costume contests, haunted houses and more. The private event provided local youth with a special chance to celebrate Halloween a couple days early with their favorite NFL team.
"I think it is pretty fun for the kids," said Jonathan Platts of the Tampa Police Athletic League. "They all had fun, went into the haunted houses and got scared, went on the water rides and got soaked. So, everything a kid likes to do pretty much all went well. I'm glad they had fun."
Pumpkin decorating captured the attention of many children, who set up shop at the arts and crafts station outside the zoo's Koala exhibit. Buccaneers staff members helped kids hone their artistic talents, including pumpkin decorating and face painting.
While staff lent their creative touch to arts and crafts, cheerleaders gathered up children outside the Grub & Grog restaurant for the evening's costume contests. Split into different age groups, entries ranged from a mini-version of McCoy's Vader to Mario and Luigi, Spiderman and Buzz Lightyear. Thomas the Train also made an appearance, along with young lions, princesses and butterflies.
"I love just seeing the kids enjoying themselves," said Watson, who attended as the popular character Jerome from the 1990s sitcom "Martin." "I'm giving back to the community and dressing up in my favorite costume."
As McCoy and Watson joined the cheerleaders in celebrating the best-dressed of the evening, a separate group of Buccaneers could be found hiding throughout Shipwrecked!, the zoo's haunted island, and Pharaoh's Tomb of Revenge, a mysterious crypt with surprises around every turn. While groups of children entered confidently, screams and shouts became a regular occurrence thanks to the likes of the Bucs' mischievous group of receivers – Benn, Briscoe, Parker and Williams – who surprised some of the guests when they least expected it.
"It was a crazy night," said Williams. "Seeing all the kids come out, scaring all the kids… it was crazy. That's why I'm here so long. I stayed until the end to scare all the kids."
There was little question about Williams' favorite part of the event. For more than two hours, the masked wide receiver bounced from house to house to find new hiding spots, enjoying the opportunity to bring some added surprises to the already eerie exhibits.
"We tried getting in the darkest spot where no one could see us and the last moment jump out," said Williams.
Despite the added opportunities to be scared, many children were excited about the new "additions" to the haunted houses.
"I like how they decorate people's faces and I like the haunted house," said Jamartez, a six-year old in attendance. "It had scary stuff like spiders and snakes jumping out at you. And there were football players scaring you in the haunted house!"
Tampa Bay players always enjoy the opportunity to help out at community-building events, but the Halloween twist provided an added bonus for the rookie members.
"Kids are our future and I have a blast with them," said McCoy. "If anybody in the NFL would have done this when I was younger, I would have loved it, so why not do it for somebody else? Just walking around and hearing the kids yell and hear them yell 'Darth Vader' and know they're talking to me feels good. Happy Halloween everybody."
McCoy's teammates echoed his sentiments.
"It feels good," said Williams. "Especially when a little boy told me I was his idol and he wanted to be just like me. It was great hearing that from somebody, especially a little kid. I grew up wanting to be just like [Michael] Jordan, just like Kobe [Bryant], and I'm a football player, so it's good being in their dreams."
At the conclusion of the fun and frightful evening, it was evident that players and patrons alike had embraced the Halloween spirit and contributed to a successful event for all.
"These kids love the Buccaneers," said Platt. "Last year we came out here and there were a couple of Bucs players that did a little scaring, and the first thing they asked me was, 'Coach JP, Coach JP, can we go see the Buccaneers?' So, having the Buccaneers out here and scaring people is pretty awesome. For the kids that never really had a Halloween, I'm pretty sure this will be the best experience that they had here as far as anything in October and Halloween."
Added Briscoe: "I feel like it was great. When I was little, I always wanted to come to these events and meet people you all looked up to. I just wanted to come out here and tell the kids that off the field we happen to be pretty good guys, and show them a good time. To come out and see the smiles on their face, it's always a good feeling."