The jump from high school to college can be daunting for any teenager. Throw in the pressures of playing a varsity sport and it's no surprise that freshman year is often a challenging experience for student-athletes.
Thanks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, more than two dozen local seniors now have a head start on the transition process.
On May 14, Head Coach Raheem Morris conducted the inaugural Buccaneers University Student-Athlete Transition Program for 26 Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas County high school seniors, all of whom have already signed a national letter of intent to play college football.
Morris was joined by other members of the Buccaneers coaching staff and front office, as well as former college players and sports professionals. The free, interactive session took place at the team's headquarters, One Buccaneer Place, and was designed to prepare student-athletes for the move from high school to college. Participants gained valuable experience in areas such as career development, decision-making, media preparation and time management.
"When I signed up as the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I immediately became responsible for our whole community," Morris said. "We want to take and embrace that and try to help out as much as we can."
The event got underway with a welcome from Buccaneers Director of Player Development Eric Vance. Vance, who also played safety for the Bucs from 1998-2001, facilitates the League's personal conduct policy within the organization and helps current Buccaneers with continuing education, career transition and other off-field matters.
Players then participated in several skits, featuring Coach Morris, Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne Stukes and other members of the Buccaneers' staff. The skits included both comical and serious moments and focused on real life circumstances such as peer pressure, dealing with conflict in social situations and the potential consequences of social media.
The students then had the chance to engage in a Q&A session with Coach Morris, Tight Ends Coach Alfredo Roberts and Defensive Line coach Grady Stretz. The discussion focused on what players should expect during the transition from high school to college and the challenges they may face in the years ahead.
Adarius Rayner of Largo High School, who will be attending Indiana University in the fall, paid close attention during the conversation, as all three pro coaches have playing experience at the collegiate level.
"I think learning from people who have been through the process is important," Rayner said. "They have more experience and you should listen to them for advice on everything."
The players then attended breakout sessions led by experts focusing on career development, time management and appropriate media practices.
In the media session, several students took turns at the podium answering questions from their peers. The exercise showcased some of the pressures and pitfalls athletes face when speaking with the media, and it also provided helpful tips and recommendations on how to appropriately handle an interview.
Tarpon Springs High student Zach DeBell, who is headed to the University of Georgia this fall, said he thought the breakout sessions highlighted some important points that many high school athletes fail to think about before they get to college.
"We really have to watch what we put on Twitter and what we put on Facebook," he said. "When you post stuff, you don't just represent yourself, you represent your family, your school, everybody."
Coach Morris explained the need for events like this by emphasizing the importance of early preparation when it comes to young student athletes.
"I believe it is hard to try to teach these lessons after they go through the process," he said. "So if we can try to catch some of these problems before they happen, to talk to them and make them aware, teach them things like time management and decision-making at this point it gives us a better chance at our level as well and gives these kids in our area a better chance."
The day concluded with a tour of the team's state-of-the-art facilities. Many of the program attendees expressed their appreciation to Coach Morris and the organization for putting together such a unique opportunity.
"I am just thankful that they hosted this event for us," said Ryan Halter* *of Countryside High School. "It's definitely an experience that we, as athletes, appreciate. We get to learn from other people's experiences, from their knowledge, and use that to better ourselves."