For 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, most of them rookies, their first full day in London was one of cultural exchange.
The Buccaneers arrived in the United Kingdom en masse late Monday evening and, by the usual conventions of their weekly in-season schedule, had Tuesday to themselves. A baker's dozen of players, along with a half-dozen Buccaneers Cheerleaders, team mascot Captain Fear and a clutch of team representatives, signed up for a day-long trip that was part ambassadorship, part tourism.
The group was mostly members of the team's rookie club – defensive linemen Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn; linebacker Mason Foster; tight ends Collin Franklin, Zack Pianalto and Luke Stocker; running backs Mossis Madu and Chad Spann; offensive linemen Chris Riley and Zane Taylor; cornerback Anthony Gaitor; and long-snapper Christian Yount – plus second-year linebacker Dekoda Watson, who never misses a chance to reach out to the community. They began the day with a bus ride through busy, winding streets that took them to the Harris Academy in South Norwood.
There, they joined the rest of the Buccaneers contingency in creating a two-hour experience the students at Harris Academy won't soon forget.
A group of 160 students between the ages of 11 and 13 packed a small auditorium adorned with a huge Buccaneers banner (other Buc regalia hung from many corners of the school grounds) and cheered loudly when the American team arrived. They laughed uproariously at Captain Fear's mascots and responded very favorably to the cheerleaders. Each player introduced himself and described the duties of his position, and the cheerleaders performed a rousing routine. Harris Academy Principal Sam Hainey said the kids had been looking forward to the Bucs' visit for some time.
"The P.E. staff has been rallying the troops and looking for volunteers and that's created a lot of excitement building up to today," said Hainey. "Even the students that aren't involved and were unable to take part today were equally excited. Particularly the young boys were desperate to get to those cheerleaders.
"I think some things that happen in school life that are one-in-a-lifetime moments. You're 25, you're 35 and you're 45, you look back and there's always something that you remember. I think this will be one of the moments that I'll personally remember and I'm sure that the students will remember because it's got all the aspects of the things you want to remember and share."
As part of the NFL's efforts to take the United States' most popular sport to a world-wide audience, an "International Series" game is staged each regular season at Wembley Stadium in London. The Buccaneers played in the game in 2009 and are the first team to be back for a second U.K. contest. They will play the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Tuesday's visit to Harris Academy was part of that effort, as the Bucs sought to introduce a basketball-crazy student body to the joys of American football. After the initial event in the auditorium, the participating students were taken in groups to a nearby gym, where they ran through a series of drills familiar to any football player. They bashed through tackling dummies, stepped over pads, caught passes, dived onto mats and cut through cones. Buccaneer players ran the drills, and Watson spiced up his station by instructing the kids to do a dance after they scored their "touchdowns." The students were particularly enthusiastic about that part of the experience.
"I told them the most important rule is that you have to do your dance, and these dance moves were something I've never seen before," said Watson. "It was nice. Truly, I just love reaching out to kids. This is what we do. As Bucs players, we've got to reach out to the community, not only in the U.S.A. but also over here in London and anywhere we go. It's truly a blessing to be here.
"They may not know much about American football but at the same time, you see the smiles on their faces. Letting them see what we do is extraordinary and I loved every part of it."
Principal Hainey described his student body as a very sporting group, and indeed they took to the unfamiliar sport quickly. Young Sharna Van Lucin, one of the participants who impressed Watson with her dance moves, said she was keen on the oblong shape of the Bucs' football and the fact that the sport combines running and kicking. She also especially enjoyed the opportunity to learn a routine from the cheerleaders while a different group was at the football stations.
"I like dancing," said Van Lucin. "My favorite station was the one in the other room where we got to work with the cheerleaders."
Bowers said the students appeared to get a pretty good grasp on his sport despite their unfamiliarity with it.
"They definitely liked it and I liked it myself," said Bowers. "I get into some of the drills myself, and this is what it's all about, being with the kids and doing anything we can to brighten their day. You've got to make it fun, because anything that's fun they'll stick with and learn as much as they can."
Before leaving, the Buccaneers presented the Harris Academy with a check from the NFL for 1,500 pounds. They also drew names to provide two lucky students with tickets to Sunday's game at Wembley Stadium. They departed to another thunderous round of cheers from their hosts.
From there, the group headed into downtown London and Fleet Street, where a private lunch was waiting at the Old Bank of England restaurant, located next to the purported spot of Sweeney Todd's barbershop. The group dined on traditional English fare, fueling up before their own bit of tourist activity.
After lunch, the next stop was the Tower of London, where the Buccaneer group was immersed in the United Kingdom's rich cultural and military past. The historic castle, established in the 11th century, houses hundreds of artifacts, including weapons and suits of armor, depictions of the Royal Menagerie and, of course, the Crown Jewels.
The Buccaneers were fortunate to have a local guide for their entire swing through London on Tuesday, which was particularly useful during the visit to the London Tower. The guide led the players through the various towers inside the castle and fleshed out the historical significance of many of the displays. For instance, the Buccaneers learned of the origins of the famous Great Star of Africa, the 530-carat diamond mounted in the head of the Sceptre with the Cross, which is part of the Crown Jewels. The enormous stone was carved from the Cullinan diamond, the largest one ever discovered.
After the interesting history lesson, the Buccaneers boarded a bus headed back to their team hotel in Surrey. Given the activities of the previous 48 hours and the five-hour time change that was still being adjusted to, it was a quiet ride, with a lot of dozing passengers. The players enjoyed the outing overall, however.
"It was fun," said Bowers. "We had a smooth plane ride, got to visit with some kids today, got to check out all this stuff here. There's a lot of history here and we had a great tour guide. I didn't really a learn a lot but I took a lot of pictures, so I'll get home and Google everything."
Added Clayborn: "Something as simple as driving on the wrong side of the road – well, the right side here – is interesting to experience. It's not every day you get to experience different cultures and see so much history."
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers experienced another culture, and helped some young men and women do the same.