With NFL labor negotiations resolved and players returning to team headquarters in preparation for some actual football, it might feel a little like "Christmas in July" at One Buccaneer Place.
Just days before the new CBA was finalized, however, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris got a better feel for what that phrase meant as he spread a little cheer of his own at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital
Morris took part in an annual toy drive held each summer at St. Joseph's and known as Christmas in July. This fun initiative helps restock the hospital's toy closet each year and provides a special party for pediatric patients. Morris, along with several Bucs cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear, contributed by visiting patient rooms, signing autographs and greeting donors as they dropped off toys.
"Anything you can do to make someone's day a little better is something special, especially when you are talking about visiting kids in the hospital," Morris said. "They are stuck in here, so it's great for us to come and visit. I'm really pleased we were able to get that done today."
The event included all the trimmings of a traditional holiday celebration, right down to an afternoon visit from Santa Claus. The hospital uses the annual affair to replenish its collection of new and used toys and gather new ones that will offer comfort and support for hospitalized children during their stay.
"Medical settings are a new, unfamiliar world for most children, and providing them with a toy or activity can bring a momentary escape from the hospital experience and their illness," said the hospital's Child Life Supervisor, Leah Frohnerath. "A well-stocked toy closet ensures that patients receive a gift on holidays, birthdays, during significant milestones in their treatment and whenever they need additional comfort."
Along with first-class facilities, medical treatment and emotional support at the children's hospital, doctors and staff encourage playing with toys as a way to improve a child's stay. Playtime can serve as a welcome distraction from therapy, medication and spending significant time away from home.
Along with greeting guests at the hospital entrance, Coach Morris and cheerleaders visited patients all around the hospital, from infants on their way to surgery to teenagers with unexpected illnesses.
"For me, I have a genuine care for children," Morris said. "Infants, teenagers and toddlers, whatever the case may be…I think they are just genuinely excited to have a visitor in the hospital, whether it's someone from the Buccaneers or not. I think it's important to be able to do these things for these kids in our society."
At any one time, St. Joseph's Children's Hospital houses between 120 and 170 patients and is the third largest children's hospital in Florida. One of those patients, Jackson Diaz, a six-year-old from Tampa, may be a football star in the making, On a day when there was little to lift Diaz' spirits, the young fan was thrilled to meet Morris.
"He's been here five days in the hospital, he was barely moving," said Sam Diaz, Jackson's father. "Once he found out Coach Morris was going to be here, he lit up. He wanted to get his Nintendo DSI out to take pictures, and he wanted his mom to get the camera out."
Diaz said his son owns a Cadillac Williams jersey that he wears on game days, and that even though Jackson was a bit shy when he met Coach Morris, he wanted to say thanks.
"He plays football and he's been to some Bucs games," Diaz said. "So for him to meet the head coach of the Bucs and being a Tampa native, it means a lot. It means a lot to the community and it means a lot to me just as a dad. I mean wow, the fact that [Morris] would take the time to come, it's really touching."
Jackson wasn't the only child whose day was brightened by the Buccaneers' visit. Nine-year-old Nicholas Bryan was delighted to meet Coach Morris and the cheerleaders and even offered to share some of his lunch with the enthusiastic coach.
"I can see it in his face," said Nicholas' mother, Amanda Bryan. "It lifts him up. He had a rough day this morning, he had a couple of procedures done, and this is the happiest I've seen him all day."
Although the Bryan's have only been in Florida for a year, they both admitted they would cheer for the Bucs - a fact Morris was thrilled to hear.
"When we come in and they get excited, it's fun," he said. "When we get to reach out to fans, it's great to see their faces when they have that big smile."
Morris also stressed the importance of the event by reiterating that the hospital is in need of new toys all year and that events like these help to keep the community involved.
"I think it is important for anybody to take their time to come here, no matter what time of year it is," he said. "But when you come here and you have some type of status symbol like being with the Buccaneers, I think it's a great deal for us and it's a great deal for the families and the kids here at the hospital."