On their only day off amid a busy schedule of practice and game preparation, four Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to work hard earlier this week in the name of fitness, health and Hispanic Heritage.
On Tuesday, cornerback E.J. Biggers, tackle Demar Dotson, defensive tackle Frank Okam and linebacker Dekoda Watson visited West Tampa Elementary School for an afternoon of fun and football. The group was welcomed with homemade signs, cheers, and plenty of smiles from more than 50 West Tampa fifth graders. As part of the NFL's ongoing "Play60" initiative, the Buccaneer visitors – which also included cheerleaders, staff members and team mascot Captain Fear – joined the students for 60 minutes of football drills.
"The kids are going to run and show their skills off," said Watson at the beginning of the visit. "For all I know, that's probably going to set them up [for an NFL future]. I may scout some of these kids today for future Bucs."
The students were already Buccaneer fans, and most of them made their allegiance known by wearing Bucs gear to school. For the hour of drills, the boys and girls were divided into four groups to practice their running, receiving and footwork skills while receiving helpful tips from the players. Cheerleaders provided encouragement, and Captain Fear's antics offered ample entertainment.
"We are out here trying to stress to kids that they need to play at least 60 minutes a day," said Watson. "I think it's vital for them to be out here playing. We just want to show them and stress to them the importance of it."
The NFL's Play60 initiative, embraced by all 32 teams, aims to inspire students to be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. The national platform stresses the importance of healthy living through physical fitness and nutrition, and the Buccaneers take every opportunity, such as Tuesday's school visit, to share the message.
Encouraging the students to join the Play60 movement wasn't the only cause that brought the Buccaneers to West Tampa Elementary on Tuesday. In connection with the NFL's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Buccaneers chose to visit this particular school, which has an enrollment of more than 60 percent Hispanic students, to spend the day. For the players, this cultural tribute holds special significance.
"When you have a chance to come and support another nationality and just kids in general…it's the greatest feeling ever," Biggers said.
Throughout the NFL, teams are commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month during Week Three of the regular season. At the conclusion of the school visit, 11 students were randomly selected to participate in the Buccaneers' pregame festivities on September 25, when the team hosts the Atlanta Falcons. This Sunday, the chosen students will lead the Buccaneers out of the tunnel during team introductions.
"I'm going to a football game, and I'm going to see the Buccaneers win," said Ociel Ortega, one of the students selected for the intro team. "I want to see how they play."
Wearing a Buccaneers' jersey and a toothy grin, 10-year-old Ortega was excited to learn about football directly from professional players on Tuesday afternoon.
"I played with the Buccaneers and learned how to play football," Ortega said. "I always see the Buccaneers play on TV, but I've never seen Buccaneers come to our school before."
Running drills with the Buccaneers not only improved the health of these young fans, but also boosted their morale.
"We are just playing football with the Buccaneers and having a good time," fifth-grader Milagros Martinez said. "It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like I'm important and that I'm somebody."
Young Ortega and Martinez were among many fifth graders with smiles on their faces, but the upbeat mood was shared by more than just the students. For the Buccaneers, having an active role in the community is equally rewarding.
"I love to see the way they react to us," Watson said. "I think that's what makes the job so special. You know, it's great to be a football player, but to be able to provide in the community and to put a smile on someone's face, there's nothing like it."