Buccaneers linemen Jovan Haye, Gaines Adams and Greg Peterson make a new friend at the Children's Cancer Center
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line was still hard at work long after the final whistle of practice blew on Thursday, and while the Atlanta Falcons were the order of business in the afternoon, the unit switched its focus at night to a group that fights a much more significant battle every day.
On Thursday evening defensive linemen Gaines Adams, Kevin Carter, Jovan Haye, Chris Hovan, Dre Moore, Greg Peterson, Ryan Sims, Greg White and Jimmy Wilkerson visited the Children's Cancer Center in Tampa to host a holiday party for youth battling life-threatening illnesses. More than 50 children and their families enjoyed a catered dinner as well as fun and games with their favorite Buccaneers.
"It's truly an honor and a privilege to be associated with these people," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who spearheaded the event with his wife Jaimi. "To have some sort of impact on anyone's life, to share a holiday with them, give some gifts out, eat a bunch of food, have a little bit of cake, and be thankful for what we have…it's been a great night."
The defensive line, which sponsored the group dinner and provided gifts for each child, was particularly excited to spread the holiday cheer to the organization's family-centered support programs. Founded in 1974, the Children's Cancer Center provides children who have cancer or chronic blood disorders and their families with the emotional, financial and educational support to cope with their life-threatening illnesses. Thursday's attendees were part of the oncology support group, which meets weekly for counseling.
"The great thing about this group is they're here to support each other and understand each other," said Shannon Hannon Oliviero, director of community relations for the Children's Cancer Center. "Even though they might not all have the same disease, they get what they're going through and it's very important for them. So to be able to have a fun time like this is just priceless."
And what fun it was! While defensive end Gaines Adams wrestled around with a new-found friend on the playground, defensive tackle Jovan Haye grabbed a controller in the game room to try his luck on the virtual playing field. Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson could be spotted lifting a budding superstar up for a dunk on the basketball court, while defensive tackle Greg Peterson gave his best Beethoven impersonation at the piano as future musical virtuosos looked on.
"It's awesome," young Robbie Killette exclaimed about the holiday festivities. "Gaines Adams is my favorite player. It's just been a great experience meeting everybody. I got autographs, ate a lot of food, hung out with them and just had fun. I love the Bucs; I watch them every single Sunday."
Amidst the fun and excitement, the players stopped to acknowledge the children's ability to overcome everyday obstacles, displaying a mental toughness well beyond their years.
"I personally admire them for the things that they go through," said defensive end Greg White. "Still being able to go to school and hang out and not worry about what people think, that's being tough-minded. That's tough. I admire how they are able to go about their everyday life."
Added Wilkerson: "I think that we, as older people, can learn from them. If you have some type of illness, don't get down on yourself. Do what these kids do every day which is to go out and have fun and live your life."
When it appeared that things couldn't get any better, the children experienced yet another treat: a surprise visit from Santa Claus. Though St. Nick's top priority was meeting with the children, the inner child in some of the players could not be suppressed. Defensive tackle Greg Peterson waited patiently for his chance to sit on Santa's lap, and defensive tackle Chris Hovan showed some holiday spirit by making it known what wish was at the top of his list this season.
"I want a Super Bowl," Hovan said.
One present each child would leave with was an autographed Buccaneers mini-helmet, a valuable keepsake for the most diehard Bucs fan. For many of these children however, this memento would hold a value far more significant than any price attached to it.
"At this time next year, when they see that helmet, they'll remember the time that one of those [Buccaneers] was playing video games or playing basketball with them on the court," said Oliviero. "It's like a card and a memory rather than just an autographed item. It's something for them to take as a memory of their night with the guys."
As Kevin Carter could attest, volunteering as a defensive unit had an added benefit as well, enhancing the experience of giving back to the community.
"It strengthens your bond as people, it strengthens your bond as human beings, and that kind of chemistry is something that you can't really coach," said the defensive end. "The work that we're able to do collectively in the community, it brings us closer together but it makes us stronger men, it makes us stronger leaders and better people."
"It just came together perfectly tonight, and it was because these guys are real," said Oliviero about the players' appreciation for their roles as professional athletes. "There are a lot of people out there that want to help you, but when they really get it, it makes a big difference."