It was with a sense of mutual appreciation that the Bucs and servicemen and women at MacDill Air Force base mingled on Saturday morning
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went through a walk-through on Saturday morning, a typical half-speed session where they review a handful of plays in preparation for a game the next day.
Thus, from a pure football perspective, it was a relatively unexciting event. But broaden the scope a bit and you'll see that this wasn't your typical Saturday morning practice session.
That's because the Bucs were surrounded on all sides of the field by military personnel and their families as the team held a walk-through at MacDill Air Force Base for the third consecutive year. By the time the short practice was over, in fact, many fans were actually sharing the field with the team.
A bit of rain early on failed to dampen the enthusiasm on all sides as a large crowd gathered around the outdoor football field on the base. The Bucs got some work in as they prepared to battle the Patriots, but the day's focus was also on showing some appreciation for the men and women serving our country.
"It was neat," Head Coach Jon Gruden said. "We had an audience today. It was all business. We didn't see any mistakes out here. Guys were concentrating. There was a lot of pressure on them not to make a mistake out here on this Air Force base. So it was a good walk-through and we're ready to go."
In between reps, many of the players made their way to the ropes surrounding the field and took a moment to sign autographs, pose for photos and meet their military fans in attendance.
It was hard to tell who enjoyed each other's company more — the players or the servicemen and women. The sense of mutual appreciation was apparent.
"I think it's good for the base and the community because the Bucs organization is so supportive of the military folks," Chief Master Sergeant Derrick Crowley said. "It's a great thing.
"The military gives so much, and it's nice to see that the Bucs recognize that and want to give back. Sometimes it's hard to be in the military, so we appreciate what they do."
Added Gruden: "It's obviously a great thrill of ours to be around the men and women that are really great leaders. It's stimulating, and it's awesome. We made some friends and reunited with some others. It's important, and we appreciate our armed services and the people here at MacDill.
"A lot of our players, this is their third time here, but for some it's new. Let's keep things in perspective — football is exciting and fun, but this is reality. These people here have made tremendous sacrifices. They work their life to protect us and lead us. It's great to be around them and show them that we care. I just think it's good education for all of us and keeps things in perspective."
At the conclusion of practice, Gruden called the team together and presented Colonel Matthew Thomas with a signed football. The Bucs' head coach then asked Thomas to address the team and break practice with a chant of, "One, two, three, Bucs!"
Thomas used his platform to return some of the appreciation.
"I just want to thank you guys for coming out here, the players and the Bucs organization, because what you're doing here means a lot to all the people out here," he told the players. "I was just talking to a couple guys that are deployed in Iraq yesterday and they received some Bucs gear in the theater. That meant a lot to them because that's their tie. They're gone for a long time, and football is one of those things that's American and having those little tokens given to them brings back the tie that there's still America back here.
"They appreciate your support in theater, they appreciate what you do for us here because you allow us to come out here and go to your games and be part of the community, so we just want to thank you and the players and Bucs organization for all you do. We hope you guys have a great season."
Thomas also presented Gruden with a framed photo for the Bucs to proudly display at One Buc Place, and the players then dispersed to spend some more time with the military families on hand. Despite the team buses waiting for them nearby, there was no rush to leave.
"It's great, man," safety Jermaine Phillips said as he mingled with the military families. "They're the reason that we do what we do. It's the reason why America is going on. For us to come out here and show our appreciation, sign some autographs and put some smiles on some faces, it's great. At the same time, it puts some smiles on our faces as well because we're so grateful. It's a pleasure."
Phillips went on to say that the mutual support between the Bucs and their fans in the military was a special thing.
"When you go overseas, to know that you're being supported and to know that you're being loved, I think that means a lot," Phillips said. "For them to know they've got the support of the Tampa Bay community and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I think it means a lot for them. As they go over there, they know they're being thought about and we continue to keep them in our prayers."
Running back Warrick Dunn, back in Tampa after spending six seasons in Atlanta, said he was proud to continue the Bucs' tradition of supporting their local servicemen and women.
"I always think it's important that we support the troops and definitely let people know in the community that we care about them and that we appreciate their support for us on Sundays," Dunn said. "I think it's important that we do come out and just show them some love because they scream and cheer and have good days and bad days because of us sometimes, so it's good to be out here.
"We did some different things like this in Atlanta from time to time, but to come out to an Air Force base, this is a unique situation here in Tampa. It's really good just to come out to the base and really be in their world for a little bit and experience their lives. It's good really just to be out and see all the people that have worked hard to protect us and keep us safe."
Major Thomas Lee, another MacDill member on hand with his young son, smiled as he watched the practice. As the Bucs packed up and got back on the buses to leave, he summed up the sense of gratitude that he and all the Air Force men and women had for the event.
"I just want to thank the Bucs organization for putting this on for us," Lee said. "They do it every year, and you can see by the turnout today that we just love the Bucs and we love the support that the Tampa Bay community has for the military."