The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 season opener took place amid an emotional day that honored the United States' resilience following the 9/11 terrorist attacks a decade earlier. And there may not have been a single more inspiring scene than the events that took place in the South End Zone stands of Raymond James Stadium just before halftime.
The scene began with a bit of a ruse. At the two-minute warning, the public address system announced the occupant of a seat in Section 121 as the "Lucky Game Winner." That occupant, surrounded by family and friends, was Amy Osborn, wife of U.S. Army Sergeant Scott Osborn. As she smiled and waved at the camera, ostensibly there to show the winner to the rest of the crowd, she was told that a special prize would be brought to her seat.
She would soon find out that this "prize" had just traveled all the way from Afghanistan to be awarded. Additional cameras trained on Sergeant Osborn as he began his way down the stadium steps towards his family's row. Amy saw her husband first on the giant stadium videoboards and was rendered speechless. The effect was exactly the opposite on the rest of the crowd, as the fans erupted in cheers.
"I didn't believe it was real," she said. "I couldn't believe it. It's such a shock that he's actually here."
Osborn, returning from active duty in Herat, Afghanistan, was reunited with more than 15 close friends and family members, including his parents, Linda Shea and Jeff Osborn. As he descended the stadium stairs, that stadium cheer turned into a chant of "U-S-A." The crowd's national pride added to the emotion of the moment for the returning soldier.
"That's incredible," Sgt. Osborn said. "You always hear people here and there giving their thanks, but that culminated everything, everyone [chanting] in unison. It was a very emotional and powerful moment."
A lifelong Buccaneers fan, Osborn attended Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, where he still resides. Decades after falling in love with the team, he still vividly remembers the first Buccaneers game he attended as a young boy.
"It's like a fairy tale for me because I was born and raised in St. Petersburg," Osborn said. "I've been a Bucs fan ever since I was tiny. I still have my program from my very first Bucs game when I was in the first grade and watched the Bucs play Walter Payton and the Bears on a rainy day."
Osborn, who has spent eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve, is currently serving with the 108th Training Command, based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He is completing his second tour of duty, the first taking place in Tikrit, Iraq. Originally scheduled to return home on leave later this week (he will celebrate his 38th birthday on Friday), Osborn jumped at the opportunity to come back early to surprise his family.
Through well-advanced and secretive planning by the Buccaneers and MacDill Air Force Base, Osborn returned to the states and arrived in Tampa on Saturday. Unbeknownst to his family, Osborn toured the team facilities at One Buccaneer Place, met Buccaneers coaches and players and spent the night at the team hotel.
"Players came up and introduced themselves and expressed their support," said Osborn after the reunion. "[Last night], Adam Hayward and Gerald McCoy came by and gave me hugs and told me how much they appreciated everything. I also presented [General Manager] Mark [Dominik] with a flag down on the field this morning when we were down there."
Sergeant Osborn plans to enjoy the next two weeks in St. Petersburg, including several trips to nearby beaches. He will then return to Afghanistan to complete the last eight months of his tour of duty. As for Amy, she is happy to have her husband home for a short while and takes pride in his service to their country.
"He leaves his family and friends and is there for 12 months," she said. "It's a big sacrifice, and I'm so proud."
Osborn's reunion highlighted a number of patriotic elements that commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 during the season opener.
During team introductions, members of the U.S. Army lead the Buccaneers out of the tunnel and onto the field. For the Buccaneers-Lions game, as well as all games beginning at 1:00 pm, an emotional performance of "Taps" was carried live via satellite video from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, site of the heroic yet tragic crash of United Flight 93. For the playing of "Taps," Buccaneers and Lions players joined members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, firefighters of Central Florida, and MacDill Air Force Base's Special Operations Command and 6th Air Mobility Wing in the presentation of a full-field American flag.
Other pregame moments included an exceptional performance of the National Anthem by Staff Sergeant Roger Zehr of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and a roaring flyover by F5s of the U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron in Key West. For the coin toss, Major General Chief of Staff Karl Horst of the U.S. Central Command served as the Buccaneers' honorary captain.
Players, coaches and sideline personnel also donned a special NFL 9/11 ribbon as a patch or pin on their uniforms and sideline apparel. Raymond James Stadium, as well as all stadiums hosting games on September 11, featured the ribbon logo on the field.
Sunday's halftime entertainment included U.S. Special Operations Command Para-Commandos parachuting into the stadium. And in recognition of the significant day in history, the NFL and NFLPA made a commitment to contribute $1 million to three memorials and two charities related to the events of September 11, 2001.
To bid on game-worn apparel that will benefit 9/11 charities, visit www.nflauction.nfl.com