Training camp may seem repetitive, with its daily practices and cookie-cutter schedules, but at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' camp there is one day that stands out every summer. That day arrived on Wednesday, just as the Bucs were finishing their first week of work.
Continuing an annual training camp tradition, the Buccaneers welcomed more than 60 Bay area athletes from Special Olympics Florida to team headquarters on Wednesday. The visiting athletes watched the Buccaneers' morning field session and enjoyed a pizza lunch from Dominos before taking the field themselves to practice with the pros.
"This, without a doubt, is the favorite event of our Special Olympic athletes," said Glenn Fite, Hillsborough County coordinator for Special Olympics Florida. "They start talking about this months before. I get emails, I get phone calls, every competition, our practices that I attend, everybody is asking me, 'When are we going to the Bucs?' And then of course, they have an absolute wonderful time here."
After Buccaneers Cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear took photos and signed autographs for the VIP guests, more than half a dozen Buccaneers jumped in on the fun, including long snapper Andrew DePaola, wide receiver David Douglas, safety Cody Grimm, running back Doug Martin, safety Troy Nolan and running back Michael Smith. Along with General Manager Mark Dominik – who never misses this annual event – the Buccaneer players helped their Special Olympics counterparts catch passes, shed tackles and score touchdowns with their favorite team.
"The fun thing is that we've got some of the same athletes out here from last year, so you start to develop a relationship with them," said Dominik. "You hug them, you're excited to see them, and they're really excited about being out here today, too."
Special Olympics is a national organization committed to empowering people with intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit group helps athletes become more healthy, confident and capable leaders, both on and off the field, through year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports.
Opportunities such as attending Buccaneers training camp help the Special Olympians develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share their skills with friends, family members, and the community.
"It's definitely a humbling feeling, and these guys have a lot of courage and bravery and determination to get out here and just be an athlete," said Martin, who helped guide a couple of athletes with vision disabilities around tackling dummies en route to the end zone. "Some of them have better moves than me."
Interacting with Wednesday's Special Olympians also served to put training camp into perspective for Buc players like Cody Grimm
"It's one of those things, we come out here and we get upset when we don't have a good practice or you get down on yourself if you don't make a play today, " said Grimm. "Then you come over here and you just realize how lucky you are that you're even out here competing for a spot. This really puts things in perspective."
Every summer, the Buccaneers host a variety of charitable groups and youth organizations at training camp, where players and staff lead participants through football and fitness drills on the team's practice fields. For dozens of Special Olympians, the morning's impact continues long after the visit has concluded.
"They leave here and it's like they've been inspired, they've been invigorated," said Fite. "They're already that way before they get here, so you can imagine the level once they leave this place. For months following this day, they're still talking about the Buccaneers and the great fun they had today."