The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their preseason home opener on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, and the team had a special treat for 50 fans in attendance, including a pregame experience that the lucky participants won't soon to forget.
With support from the NFL, the Buccaneers conducted an on-field ceremony on Thursday designed to thank fans for their continuing support. The ceremony included 10 invited guests from Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Tampa plus 40 other fans who were randomly selected upon their arrival at the stadium. The fans represented a wide range of Buccaneers supporters, from long-term season ticket holders to first-time attendees.
Among the many ways the Buccaneers thanked their fans, as part of a league-wide initiative, was to present each of the selected guests with an authentic Tampa Bay jersey signed by Head Coach Raheem Morris. All 50 fans immediately donned their new jerseys for the remainder of the evening.
Mike Dempsey, a fan from Orlando who has been a season ticket holder for the past four years, was absolutely thrilled to be selected. "We just love the Bucs," he said, speaking for his entire party. "This was the last thing I expected; I would have been a fool to say no. This is something that you dream about and it's something I'll never forget."
The selected fans were able to get as close to the action as possible as they stood near the goal line of the south end zone for warmups, watching Josh Freeman, Tom Brady and others prepare for the game.
Brothers Orin and Wayne Browning, both Tampa natives, have been season ticket holders for the past 33 years and have only missed a handful of games in that span. Nevertheless, Thursday's experience was a one-of-a-kind experience for both.
"This really is the whole nine yards," said Orin. "It's been amazing and in all my years here I can't remember a more exciting experience than coming to the game and getting to go on the field."
It wasn't just season ticket holders who got in on the excitement, as five of the children from Big Brothers/Big Sisters were attending their very first Buccaneers game. The other five were enjoying their first chance to walk on the field.
Nicole McNally, a "big sister" to "little sister" Neila Edwards, was attending her second Bucs game. Both felt fortunate that the Buccaneers were able to give this opportunity to kids that may not have otherwise had a chance to attend a game.
"It's been really neat and it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my 'little,'" McNally said. "She doesn't have the opportunity to do things like this, and to get the chance to come on the field is unbelievable for her."
Neila was very animated as she watched warmups from the sideline.
"It's awesome" she said. "I love the Bucs."
One of the "little brothers," Jonathan Foster, was invited to the game for receiving perfect attendance in school, an accomplishment that brought him an award for as well. He said he wanted to thank his family for helping push him to the achievement. Foster was also very eager to watch the Buccaneers face New England during their first home game and said he was looking forward to the matchup between Brady and Freeman.
"This is my second game with my big brother," he said. "But it's really exciting, the players are really big and I can't wait to watch the game tonight."
Although Foster doesn't plan on pursuing a career in sports, he hopes to come to more games with his big brother in the future.
As part of a more extended gesture to the fans, the Buccaneers opened the game with videos from Mike Williams, Gerald McCoy and other Tampa Bay players thanking fans for their support. Thursday night's lucky participants then lined the tunnel along with the Buccaneers cheerleaders during the player introductions, and 10 fans were selected to serve as honorary captains for the game's coin toss.
Verna Woods, another Tampa native, was one of the fans who served as an honorary captain during the coin toss. She came off the field with a huge smile on her face and was almost speechless about the opportunity.
"It was like a birthday present," Woods said. "This was something special. To be involved, it really was just special."
The event was part of the Buccaneers' and NFL's initiative to thank fans both old and new for their support of the team and the game of football. For 50 Buccaneer faithful tonight, the thank you is sure to last a lifetime.