Vernon Hargreaves is a "coach's kid," which may explain why he was such a natural leader at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Play60 event at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday. Or maybe it's the second half of that descriptor that allowed him to engage so effortlessly with the dozens of youngsters taking part in Tuesday's event: In the right setting, Hargreaves is still just a kid at heart.
Never was that more obvious than at the event's conclusion, when he suddenly challenged all the participants to a race. He had many enthusiastic takers.
"Al I ever wanted to do when I was a kid was race somebody," said Hargreaves, the Buccaneers' rookie cornerback. "That was it. So I figured I'd get a race going at the end and see who the fast guys are."
All 24 rookies on Tampa Bay's current roster took part in the Play60 outing, separating into position groups and running drills for rotating groups of young Buccaneer wannabes. The event was part of the rookie transition program taking place at team headquarters this week; in effect the NFL has decentralized its former league-wide Rookie Symposium and asked the individual teams to run their own educational curriculum. That gave Hargreaves and company an opportunity to continue the Buccaneers' long-running relationship with the Jackson Heights NFL Y.E.T. Center.
"This is part of the Buccaneers' rookie symposium, but we wanted to be a part of it so we could invite our guests from the NFL YET Center and give them a day they're never going to forget," said Eileen Sweeney, the team's director of community relations. "The Y.E.T. Center was the result of the year that the Super Bowl was here, and it was a commitment from the NFL to have an important leave-behind, if you will. We have continued to work with the Y.E.T. Center, we've had our employees out there on volunteer days, and this fall we'll be dedicating the Glazer Family Field out there."
The Y.E.T. Center in East Tampa was established in 2001 after Super Bowl XXXV was played at Raymond James Stadium. Buccaneer staff members took part in a significant renovation project at the center last fall, and the much-anticipated new synthetic turf field – the product of a $200,000 grant from the Glazer Family Foundation – is scheduled to be completed during the 2016 season. The center is home to youth football, school and intramural sport leagues and summer camp events for the surrounding community. Tuesday's event was another opportunity for the Buccaneers to interact with the kids from the Y.E.T. center, and to emphasize the Play60 message of being active in order to reverse the nationwide trend of childhood obesity.
"This event has been great," said Jamal Jefferson, site supervisor at the Jackson Heights Y.E.T. Center. "The kids have enjoyed every minute of it, the players have been gracious, the Buccaneers have been gracious hosts. The kids couldn't stop smiling, couldn't stop laughing and having a good time. It's something that they'll never forget."
Meeting, interacting and simply playing with the Buccaneer rookies was the best part for the visiting children, and the players enthusiastically threw themselves into the effort to make the visit a fun one. Afterwards, Caleb Benenoch, DaVonte Lambert and Hargreaves all spoke to the assembled group, urging them to work hard, believe in their abilities and have fun.
"I think words can express how important it is for the morale and the self-esteem of our kids," said Jefferson. "For them to go home feeling good about themselves, to be able to share with their peers and their families what an awesome time they had out here today with the Buccaneers – you can't put a value on it. It's invaluable."
As the son of a football coach, Hargreaves was around players his whole life, and he witnessed how badly other kids wanted to interact with them. Now that he's a well-known athlete in his adopted hometown – he moved to the Bay area in his sophomore high school year – he wants to make that possible for as many kids as possible in his community.
"I think that's one of my duties, to inspire, to lead, now especially being in the community I'm in," said Hargreaves. "The kids look up to me. They know who I am. I went to high school right down the street. It gives them something positive to think about, to let them know I'm right down the street.
Added rookie tight end Dan Vitale, who said he went to countless football camps as a kid: "You try to be like these guys who are playing in college and the NFL, you try to embody everything that they did and everything that they've achieved, so this is where the journey starts for them and it's really cool to see."
Vitale and his fellow members of the Bucs' Class of 2016 will get plenty more opportunities to engage with the community during the season as they take part in Buccaneers Rookie Club events. This year's newcomers have already hosted a bowling outing with Tampa Fire Rescue and visited MacDill Air Force Base, and upcoming events will pair them with underprivileged children, retired members of the military and other groups. Each one promises the same abundant smiles that graced the One Buccaneer Place practice fields on Tuesday.
"I think it's really important for our rookies to understand what the Buccaneers do in the community, and I think bringing these kids out makes that whole partnership seem so real," said Sweeney. "Everybody was winning today. It was a fun day for our players as well as our kids."