Every year, the Children's Cancer Center hosts a festive event for more than 200 brave children battling life-threatening illnesses. The gathering always brings laughter and smiles to families who otherwise might not be in the mood to celebrate the holidays. And every year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers circle the date on their calendar in anticipation of joining in the fun.
This year was no different.
On Monday, safety Larry Asante, defensive tackles Roy Miller and Frank Okam, linebacker Dekoda Watson, Buccaneers cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear spent the evening at the annual Children's Cancer Center Holiday Party, celebrating the season of giving and bringing some Buccaneer cheer to the occasion.
"These players are the kids' heroes," said Patty O'Leary, chief operating officer of the Children's Cancer Center. "They're the people that the kids look up to, that they see battle every day on the football field. Then, I look at these kids who are truly heroes as well. It's just neat to see the two come together."
The group from One Buc Place shared time with families from the hematology and oncology support groups, participating in arts and crafts, games, gingerbread house-making and more. The event also included a visit from Santa Claus, who handed out gifts to the children.
"Working with kids is just a beautiful thing," Watson said. "We're just spreading a little bit of holiday cheer. We're much more than football players. We're more about good spirits, so that's what we're trying to do right now."
In particularly good spirits was young Michelle Ferris, who is celebrating a special Christmas this year.
"I've been on treatment with cancer, and today was my very last time of cancer treatment," Ferris said. "I believe it has to be the best Christmas gift ever."
Ferris joined hundreds of other young kids at the party who have cancer or chronic blood disorders. The Children's Cancer Center provides emotional, financial and educational support necessary to cope with life-threatening diseases to children like Ferris and their families.
"Tonight really encompasses what the Children's Cancer Center is all about," O'Leary said. "Our goal is to allow kids to be kids, so it's really important for us to provide a platform for kids to enjoy life. We know that it takes more than medicine to help kids do well. When you look around the room on an evening like tonight, it really does embody the spirit of everything our mission is."
The holiday event was not only special for O'Leary's organization and the children involved, but also for the professional athletes who spent what little free time they have to give back to the community.
"It's just special being here and being around all these kids," Miller said. "They're really an inspiration to us, just to see them battling through all the things they're going through, and they're still so lively and just fighting and having a great time."
While signing autographs and posing for pictures proved entertaining, the players' dedication to creating cheerful memories for the kids was on full display during a rousing "Santa Stuff" competition. Asante and Watson, donning their red Buccaneers jerseys, volunteered to play the roles of Santa Claus by stepping into red St. Nick pajamas.
Laughter filled the room as the children took turns stuffing crushed up newspaper into the two outfits, helping the very fit Asante and Watson "fill out" their new costumes. The eventual winner, determined by a crowd vote for his "jolly" appearance, was Watson, who danced to the music while showing off his new frame.
For families battling some of the toughest challenges life has to offer, the lighthearted scene was the perfect remedy during the holidays. And on Monday, the Buccaneers were happy to do their part.
"I just want to be able to spread some happiness," Watson said. "That's what we're about. That's what a Buc is about, just spreading happiness."
To learn more about what the Buccaneers are doing in the community, please click here.