Crystal River, Florida lies about 70 miles to the north of Tampa in Citrus County, requiring a drive of roughly 80 or 90 minutes to get from one to the other.
Some might say that's a pretty lengthy trip; to Trey Evans, it's "not far at all."
Point well-taken, Trey. It's a matter of perspective, really. If the destination is attractive enough, the time it takes to get there might seem like nothing at all.
So what was the destination for Trey on this summer weekend that was worthy of the time and effort? That would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2010 FanFest presented by Bright House Networks! Buccaneer fans numbering in the high 20,000s - the estimated attendance at Saturday's event at Raymond James Stadium - would agree.
Trey made the trek to Raymond James Stadium with his dad on Saturday to attend the first-ever evening FanFest. The annual event, previously held in the morning and early afternoon, has become an annual pilgrimage for many a Buccaneers fan in the Bay area and beyond, and they weren't disappointed on Saturday night. The 2010 FanFest retained all of the great features that have made FanFest so popular but presented them later in the day to give Buccaneer faithful a break from the heat.
That decision was certainly justified by Saturday's FanFest. An early-afternoon thunderstorm and the day's steamiest hours had already passed when the Bucs opened the stadium gates at 4:30 p.m. ET, and before the event was halfway over the day had transitioned into a typically beautiful Tampa evening. The later hours also had one pleasantly surprising side effect: This year's crowd came in several waves, allowing better access for all into the stadium and to the attractions they found within.
For many, the top attraction was the thing that drew Trey and his dad: Interaction with the players. People come from much farther than Crystal River to see the Buccaneers play their games, of course, but Saturday's event is something else entirely. As Head Coach Raheem Morris says, Buccaneer players are "entertainers" on game day; at FanFest, they're neighbors. The event draws tens of thousands of fans to the stadium every year precisely because it allows that direct contact between players and fans.
"There's just a lot of players and I like meeting them," gushed Trey. Plus, there's a lot of cool stuff. Meeting the players is definitely the best part, though."
Trey took his Buccaneer hat off to gather signatures as he passed in front of a table at which Cody Grimm, Barrett Ruud, Ryan Sims and Derrick Ward were seated, then jammed it back onto his head at the end. There's no fancy memorabilia case in the future for this hat; Trey intends to keep on wearing it, proudly displaying the new autographs. Besides, it was the chance to talk to Ruud, the Bucs' star middle linebacker, that Trey really treasured.
In fact, Trey had a specific question for Ruud that the sixth-year player probably hasn't heard before: "How can you survive an entire game with hair that long?"
It should be noted that Trey's own head of hair was tending towards Ruud's current style, with locks flowing down onto his shoulders. Probably from personal experience, Trey worried that so much hair would cause Ruud to be very hot by the end of a long game. Ruud assured him that it was actually fun when his hair got dripping wet during games. A national secret? No, but also something Trey could probably have only learned from one of his favorite players by attending this special event.
Oh, and as the young fan also pointed out, there's lots of "cool stuff" at FanFest.
Buccaneer sponsors like Publix, Hess and Coca-Cola had tents all over the RJS field, providing giveaway items and letting fans try their hands at games in order to win prizes. You could, for instance, putt to win at the Hess tent. Young fans looking for a little more exertion could move over to another corner of the field where a series of interactive football games had been set up. Run through tackling dummies, catch long passes, kick field goals - it was like being a Buccaneer for a day, right there on the team's home field.
Fans in attendance also enjoyed half-price concessions, opportunities to meet prominent Buccaneer alumni, a chance to pose with the Lombardi Trophy, the first two performances by the 2010 Buccaneers Cheerleaders squad, and much, much more. They also found FanFest to be the perfect place at which to share their enthusiasm about the upcoming Buccaneers season.
"It's fun," said running back Earnest Graham, who has been to eight or nine FanFests and finds that they never get old. "It's a chance to get out in the community and meet the fans, signs some autographs and get everybody excited about the season."
The fans' enthusiasm was certainly evident during the three "Coaches' Corner" segments, in which members of the Bucs' coaching staff were introduced and allowed to answer questions about the team. Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson and other offensive coaches went first, followed by a group of defensive coaches and, finally, Head Coach Raheem Morris. During Morris' typically high-energy session on the stage, fans crowded to the front and shouted questions and encouragement.
"Everyone out there has a hard job," said Morris. "It's my job to make all of you proud. We have to do whatever it takes to get all these people in the stadium some wins. That's the only thing we're focused on. We're excited for the opportunity to make all of you proud."
On this Saturday, at least, they made them happy. Trey from Crystal River came to FanFest to meet some players, get a few autographs, play a couple games and just immerse himself in the Buccaneers for one evening. Buccaneer players and coaches came to FanFest to meet fans like Trey and his dad. Nothing motivates a player quite like spending some time with the very people who are spurring them on to success on Sundays.
"This is the best team to play for, the best organization, the best community supporting us, and you can see all of that at FanFest," said Graham. "This year, in 2010, we're going to lead the league in effort, and we expect our fans to lead the league in effort, too. I have no doubt that they will after seeing this. It's going to be a great year for the community and for our team."