Randall McDaniel shared advice with prospective college students on Tuesday at the annual Hometown Huddle
Randall McDaniel has been in a huddle before. Thousands of them really.
By this point, most huddles probably seem the same to this 14th year National Football League veteran – somebody else handles all of the talking and McDaniel simply does as directed.
On Tuesday, McDaniel found himself in a different type of huddle altogether, unfamiliar save for the fact that it was formed by 11 people in a circle. In this gathering, all eyes were on him, all ears eager for his direction.
And when this huddle broke, the 10 others would go in 10 different directions. McDaniel hoped to have some influence on those paths.
This was a Hometown Huddle, an annual event in each NFL city sprung from the longtime partnership between the league and the United Way. This year in Tampa, the Hometown Huddle brought together 100 local teenagers who needed encouragement to continue their education with Tampa Bay Buccaneers players like McDaniel.
The teenagers were part of the Youth Opportunity (YO!) Movement Program in Tampa, which integrates youth development, education and workforce philosophy and curriculum to assist more than 1,600 youth ages 14-21. The Buccaneer players were on hand as powerful role models speaking to the importance of education. The setting was the Ponce De Leon Boys and Girls Club of Tampa.
After an opening presentation, the seven Buc players on hand – McDaniel, Rabih Abdullah, Derrick Brooks, Jamie Duncan, Russ Hochstein, Alshermond Singleton and Steve White – chose colored footballs from a helmet that directed them to a particular group of waiting teenagers. After 15 minutes of frank discussion, the players chose from the helmet again and sat down with another group.
McDaniel related stories from his own high school and college days, long before he became a perennial Pro Bowler in the NFL, and came away impressed with the students with which he interacted.
"They are on the right path," said McDaniel. "They're making the right choices and they're trying to get that education. You come out and talk to them about what you went through when you went to college. Let them know some of the pitfalls that are out there and some of the good things that are out there, what they need to look for, what to study.
"My big thing was just to remind them that, when they do go to college, mom and dad aren't there to wake you up in the morning. It's all on you. It's your responsibility to get the job done and take care of business while you're there."
The seven players in attendance each have at least one college degree, part of a group of 29 current Buccaneers who can say the same. That represents the largest single number of players on any NFL team that have received their degrees. As the players introduced themselves to the entire crowd at the beginning of the event, each was given an ovation by the students when they divulged their school and the nature of their degree. It was a strong signal that these youth were receiving the message of the importance of education.
"We hope today that the kids will see that it's not just about sports and athletics," said Diane Baker, interim president of the United Way of Hillsborough County. "It's also about education and how important that is to them. They're going to get an opportunity, firsthand, to talk to some of the players about their college experiences. We hope that will motivate and encourage them, and inspire them in their YO! program opportunities."
As further inspiration, three scholarships were presented after the players and teenagers interacted by Baker, Roy Opfer, President of Boys and Girls Clubs of Hillsborough County and Robert Dufva, Project Director of the Youth Opportunities Movement Program of Tampa. Fourteen of the students in attendance had participated in an essay contest regarding the importance of continued education; all received gifts and three were chosen for identical $1,000 grants to be applied to a university, community college or vocational institute.
Brooks, White and Abdullah were thrilled to present the checks to, respectively, students Elton Johnson, Evelyn Williams and Jessica Robertson.
Set up around the outside of the meeting area at the Ponce De Leon gathering were informational tables staffed by representatives from the University of South Florida, Florida A&M University, Eckerd College, Hillsborough County Community College, Pasco-Hernando Community College and Hillsborough Technical Education Centers. On the walls were the newly-unveiled Buccaneers posters listing all of the Bucs who have earned college degrees.
Inside were the huddles, where players willingly shared of their own college experiences, answered questions and offered advice.
Duncan told his first group that coming from a family without a continued education history and other obstacles should not prevent a determined student from obtaining a college degree.
"Getting a degree was always a big goal of mine," said White. "I was the first one in my family to even go to college. My sister, my older brother, my parents – nobody got that opportunity. I was fortunate enough to have played sports, and that gave me an avenue to get to college.
"It wasn't always easy. There were always things holding me back from trying to achieve my goals. But I was the only one to go in my family, so I was determined that nothing was going to hold me back. That's why I'm here today.
"Even if you're the first generation in your family to go to college, anything is possible. It could be through sports, academics – there are all kinds of scholarships out there. If you really want to go to school, you can find a way."
White also told his group that it would not necessarily be an easy accomplishment. On the other hand, he wanted to make sure that they understood that it was well within their grasp.
"It's just a sense of accomplishment of walking across the stage, seeing your family in the audience and them seeing you, seeing the work you put in," he said. "And the work is not that hard. People make it seem like there's no use in trying to strive to get a college degree. 'It's too hard. Don't even try.'
"It's not that hard. It's just a matter of being committed to it. Middle school was harder than elementary school. High school's harder than middle school. College is a little bit harder than high school, but if you're committed to doing it, just like you're going to graduate high school, you can get your degree from college. I don't want anybody to buy into the idea that it's too hard."
In the end, the annual Hometown Huddle event, one of the most important community activities of the year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, achieved what Baker had hoped it would: showing local students that education is important in every walk of life.
"The young people in our community have an opportunity today to learn how some of these Buccaneers players arrived not only at the NFL, but at a place in their academic pursuits where they can graduate from college and be prepared for other careers after the NFL," said Baker.
It is a powerful message, to be sure, and one that White communicated to his rapt listeners in simple, straightforward terms.
"You'll always have a head start in life," said White, "if you get your college degree."