Sammie Stroughter's most treasured Christmas memory is not of a specific gift he received as a child, nor a happy holiday meal or a trip to see Santa. The memory, in fact, is not even of a particularly joyous moment, but of one that shaped the way he has approached the holidays ever since. Stroughter still vividly recalls the moment as a child that he learned a very valuable lesson the hard way.
"I remember this one Christmas when I was nine years old," Stroughter recounted. "I wanted one thing in particular, and my mom said she couldn't get it for me. She said, 'I'm sorry, but we love you so much.' I threw the biggest fit, but she actually had the gift and wanted to give it to me at night. I hurt my mom on Christmas. I will always remember that."
That is the year young Stroughter learned the true meaning of the holidays, and for him specifically, Christmas.
"That changed the meaning of Christmas for me," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-year wide receiver. "You know what? It's about the love. It's about Jesus' birthday. It's not about what you get; it's who you spend it with."
On Monday, Stroughter spent the afternoon in the company of a large group of his teammates and an even larger group of people who were definitely feeling the holiday spirit. Stroughter, safety Larry Asante, kicker Connor Barth, cornerback E.J. Biggers, quarterback Rudy Carpenter, tackle Demar Dotson, linebacker Adam Hayward, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Dekoda Watson – as well as Buccaneers cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear – connected with 30 less-fortunate families during the Buccaneers' fifth annual "Day of Giving."
The families, who were selected by United Way of Tampa Bay, assembled at One Buccaneer Place on Monday afternoon for what they believed would be a special tour of the team's headquarters. Soon after they gathered in the team's large auditorium, however, the families discovered the true reason behind their visit.
Led by Hayward, Buccaneers players, cheerleaders and Captain Fear took the stage and announced that it was time for a little gift-giving. At that point, the players and cheerleaders began moving through the rows of seats, giving each family toys and digital cameras along with Hess and Publix Supermarkets gift cards. The families were obviously delighted, but that was just the beginning.
The families were then split up into three groups and led out behind One Buccaneer Place. The assembly moved along the back of the facility towards the Buccaneers' enormous weight room. Between the main building and the weight room is a breezeway, and as the children on hand surged around the corner into the breezeway they were greeted with another wonderful surprise. Lining both sides of the passageway was a bicycle for each child, helpfully tagged by name. Smaller children not ready for bicycles were given Big Wheel-type tricycles.
It took some time for the kids' excitement over their new bikes to die down, but the group then learned that the Day of Giving still wasn't over. At that point, three large buses pulled into view, ready to take the whole crowd to a nearby Target store, where the families were going to be sent on a shopping spree
The players hopped on the buses with the families and went along to help as personal shoppers. McCoy narrated the action as it developed.
"We are in Target with 30 families, and they have $225 worth of shopping money," he said. "We are just out here picking up clothes, toys or whatever they want to pick; it's up to them."
Red Santa caps bounced through the aisles of the retail store as the jersey-clad players helped the swarm of children loading their shopping carts with toys, clothes and electronics. Many of the kids may have found exactly what they wanted most for the holidays – just as Stroughter unexpectedly did when he was nine – but the Buc receiver still believed the experience of the event was more important than the actual gifts.
"We got to come to Target and do a little bit of Christmas shopping," Stroughter said. "We got to spend time with the kids and with the families and just let them know that when we're not on the field, we are in the community and we really care."
A native of northern California, Stroughter is generally away from his family during the holiday season due to his football career. When he cannot be home at this time of the year, he enjoys spending time with other families and giving back to the community at Christmas time.
"It's just good to be around and see the smiles on the kid's faces and the families' faces when they can come in Target and get what they want for Christmas," Stroughter said. "We all have family, and we know how much it means to us because we wouldn't be in the position we are now if we didn't have them. It's just about being very thankful and always wanting to give back as much as I can. We can make an impact and make a difference."
Though Stroughter and his teammates are football players by profession, they all agree that giving back to the community ranks high on their list of priorities.
"When we have free time and are able to give back, there's nothing better than that," McCoy said. "We go out there and play these games, make these tackles, make these catches, throw passes, but that can't amount to the feeling you get when you get to help someone else out."
For some of those who were invited to One Buccaneer Place on Monday for this year's Day of Giving, the memories will last in much the same way that fateful moment from his childhood has lasted for Stroughter.
"I never had anything like this done for me and my family before in my life," said Alberta Washington, whose family got an invite for the event. "I just got through battling breast cancer, and have been out of work for two years. This is a blessing. Everyone at One Buc Place is so wonderful and marvelous, and this really has made my day. I will never forget this day as long as I live."