Head Coach Raheem Morris connected with the fans at Saturday's ultra-popular FanFest, attended by 30,000 people
Dustin Nieves has Tampa Bay Buccaneers season tickets and a crisp white Barrett Ruud jersey that is either brand new or so lovingly maintained as to appear so.
Thanks to the Buccaneers' 2009 FanFest, presented by Bright House Networks, Nieves also now has a picture of himself, his wife Kristen and his son Zachary standing with the Lombardi Trophy from 2002. Like the Ruud jersey, that photo means much to the lifelong Bucs fan, who called the 2002 Super Bowl campaign, "the greatest season of my life."
Zachary, who recently turned six, just missed that season, but he's already a big Bucs fan like dad and he could be in for some exciting times of his own. That's what the elder Nieves believes, and an event like FanFest helps everyone – fans young and old, Buccaneers players and coaches and just about anyone who came out to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday – express their excitement over another impending Buccaneer season.
"Who knows what will happen, but I'm excited by all the changes," said Nieves. "It was time, I think. It's exciting because you don't know what's going to happen. Why won't Quincy Black be a great player now that he might get a chance to play more? Why not Sabby Piscitelli? Why can't these guys be great? You never know until you throw them out there. I'm really excited about this team's future."
Nieves was referring to the hiring of Head Coach Raheem Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik and the subsequent significant alterations to the roster. There are, indeed, uncharted waters ahead. One thing Morris knows as he takes over the helm, however, is that his team is supported by a very deep and very passionate fan base. That was obvious once again at his first FanFest as the head coach.
Morris sat at the head of a long table of players inside the West Concourse, signing autographs for hours and frequently posing for pictures with fans. He was as gregarious as always, quick with a joke, and he found a very enthusiastic group of fans in response.
"It's actually really good," said Morris of the overall mood he sensed during the event. "Everybody's really excited, everybody's really happy, everybody's highly motivated. We're looking forward to going out and having a great season for these guys.
"It's always good to get out and see the fans, be around them. We talked about this right from the beginning, not being these mythical figures that nobody ever sees. To get a chance to see the fans is always fun. We just like to develop those relationships. We know that during the football season this is the reason they cheer for you, the reason why they love you."
In addition to the autograph tables under the concourse, which was the home for two different two-hour sessions of player signing, three of the four corners of the two Club Lounges and one Press Box area housed smaller, more specific groups of Bucs. Fans who acquired vouchers from the stadium ticket windows in the morning were given admittance to these areas, where prominent player foursomes were waiting with pens and autograph cards. One group, for instance, included tight end Kellen Winslow, safety Jermaine Phillips, wide receiver Antonio Bryant and fullback B.J. Askew. Another paired center Jeff Faine and defensive tackle Chris Hovan with running back Clifton Smith and cornerback Aqib Talib.
Fans who wished to meet the team's new quarterback, first-round pick Josh Freeman, got vouchers for the A.M. session in the Press Box. Other new players appeared in different Club Lounge groupings, on the field in sponsor's tents or, as in the case of third-round pick Roy Miller, at the concourse tables in the morning.
Miller, a former University of Texas Longhorn, is a defensive tackle from a big-time college program, but he wasn't quite prepared for the scale of the Buccaneers' FanFest. An estimated 30,000 fans descended upon Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, and Miller was stunned by both their numbers and their passion.
"It's crazy," he said, shaking his head. "The amount of fans here, the turnout…it's amazing. We had something similar to this at Texas and I thought that was crazy, but there are so many fans out here it's amazing. I don't even know how to explain it.
"It shows the type of fans we have, the type of place this is and the history this organization has. This is amazing and I'm just excited to be a part of this, be a part of a team that has a fan base like this. For a team to have great fans like this, that's a big advantage. I can't wait to play a game here."
Many of those 30,000 fans braved a non-too-subtle heat to enjoy a myriad of activities on the stadium field. All four sides of the stadium base were lined with tents housing Pewter Partner giveaways, interactive football-themed games, Buccaneers Cheerleaders signing autographs and much more. As always, the football games were huge hits with the younger fans, who imitated their Buccaneer heroes by running through obstacle courses, catching punts from a Jugs gun, hitting tackling dummies and throwing footballs through targets.
The fans on the field were also treated to an in-depth football discussion between 11:00 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., as the team conducted its Coaches Corner Q&A, annually one of the most popular aspects of FanFest. A rotating group of coaches, beginning with the offensive staff and followed by the defensive coaches and finally Morris himself, spoke about the upcoming season and answered questions from emcee Dave Moore.
Moore, the former fan-favorite tight end-turned-radio analyst asked his own questions as well as a sampling of queries sent in by fans through Buccaneers.com. The coaches expressed confidence regarding the upcoming season but also answered specific questions with straightforward candor.
Assistant Head Coach/Wide Receivers Coach, for instance, revealed that Brian Clark is the front-runner, in his mind, for the third-receiver spot behind presumptive starters Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Assistant Defensive Backs Coach Dwayne Stukes said that rookie cornerback E.J. Biggers had started off slow after he was drafted in April but has in recent weeks picked up his game considerably and now may be a player the Bucs count on in 2009. And Defensive Line Coach Todd Wash said that rookie defensive end Kyle Moore may be asked to play 25 to 30 plays per game in the Bucs' D-Line rotation this year.
Wash also spoke positively about one of the players that many believe will be a key to the team's defensive success in 2009: third-year defensive end Gaines Adams.
"He's done a real good job this offseason," said Wash. "He's made a very big commitment to the weight room and that's allowing his pass rush to develop even more. You see him right now and he's starting to put more tools in the toolbox instead of just running upfield. He's really starting to develop his power moves and we're expecting great things out of him this year."
The give-and-take of the Coaches Corner session was broadcast throughout the stadium, in the Club Lounges and the concourses, so even the fans waiting in line soaked in the information. Some were still moving through the autograph lines where Morris and Dominik and dozens of players were waiting. Others, like the Nieves, were getting their picture taken with the Buccaneers' Lombardi Trophy. All were taking advantage of a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with the team, its players and its coaches.
Nieves was glad he came back, this time with his young family. Though only 37, he has been a season ticketholder for 18 years and he used to come to FanFest regularly, even back when it was held at old Tampa Stadium. He hadn't been for years, however, in part because he feared it might be tough to navigate the big crowds with a small child. In truth, kids of all ages come to FanFest every year, and most leave with big smiles on their faces.
Some also leave with a little something special. Remember that Barrett Ruud jersey that Nieves has? Perhaps we should say had, instead. At the absolute best moment of FanFest for the Nieves family, little Zachary presented the jersey to Ruud himself, who personalized his autograph with a "To Zach" and wished the young Bucs fan well.
Dad had taken the jersey off his back so that his son could present it to his favorite player. He isn't getting it back.
That thing belongs to Zach now, along with memories that will last a very long time.