On Thursday, millions of Americans were given the day off to celebrate Veterans Day, a holiday that honors citizens who have served in the United States armed forces. Though the Buccaneers were at work that day preparing for Sunday's matchup against the Carolina Panthers, the team took its time off on Monday and Tuesday to show thanks for those protecting the nation's freedom.
Accompanied by defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller, as well as Buccaneers cheerleaders Shaniqua Brown and Nikki Fraser, General Manager Mark Dominik led a visit to James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital on Monday to meet with military members recovering from injury and illness.
"This opens everybody's eyes," said Dominik. "Everyone that comes here through the Bucs organization has a chance to see some of the struggles these men and women have to go through and it kind of reminds you and grounds you a little bit about the blessings you have personally."
Dominik is no stranger to the patients at Haley, who he visits throughout the year. Along with regularly volunteering at the hospital's "Helping Hands" dinners, he has hosted veterans at training camp and Buccaneers home games to help strengthen the team's bond with local armed forces.
That relationship has undoubtedly grown stronger since Dominik was named General Manager in January of 2009. Having a father and brother who both served in the Navy, Dominik has focused his community outreach on working with war veterans and all branches of the military. Training camp, his game day ticket program, special events and community appearances are just some of the ways he supports service personnel throughout the Bay area.
"We really grasp our military and really are proud of what they do, active military and the reserve and all of the people that have been through here, the Haley Hospital," said Dominik. "We're looking forward to coming back again in a little bit and seeing progress from the men and women in here right now."
In 2009, Dominik organized a similar visit to Haley with several Buccaneers players, including Miller. For the defensive tackle, whose father served in the Army for over 20 years, visiting with the wounded veterans brings a greater appreciation to his experiences as an athlete.
"Coming out here and just being able to see these guys makes you forget about maybe a bad play you had or anything that happened the day before, all your problems," said Miller. "It makes you see that your problems are small and these guys, whatever they've been through, they come here with smiling faces and they just have the ultimate fight to carry on and continue to live a good life. I have a lot of respect for them for how they handle adversity and what they have done for us. Just to be here definitely takes everything out of your mind from all the bad things, and I'm just happy to be here."
This time around, Miller invited his rookie teammate to join him.
"It's one of those deals where Roy asked me to come, and once he told me what it was, he didn't have to ask me again, it was a no-brainer," said McCoy. "Military vets are very important because without them, we would be nothing. We wouldn't be able to play the sport we love and our freedom is so important in our country. I don't think we take enough time out to appreciate what they do."
Monday's visit was just the beginning of the team's efforts to honor the military. On Tuesday, the Buccaneers held an appreciation pep rally at MacDill Air Force Base for active duty servicemen and women stationed in Tampa. The event, also attended by Dominik, included appearances by running back LeGarrette Blount, quarterback Josh Freeman, linebacker Geno Hayes and a group of Buccaneers cheerleaders.
Hundreds of military personnel came out for the rally, which was emceed by Scott Ledger of the Buccaneers Radio Network. The upbeat gathering included a question-and-answer session with the players, performances by the cheerleading squad and autograph opportunities for all in attendance.
The event proved timely for the base's 6th Air Mobility Wing and 927th Refueling Wing, who had just completed a refueling exercise overseen by higher command. Unbeknownst to base personnel, the Mobility Command was executing a no-notice inspection of their exercise operation, observing and grading every move of their performance.
On Tuesday morning, the active-duty and reserve units were given the results: a grade of Excellence. For Colonel Lenny Richoux, Commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the rally served as the perfect reward for a job well done by military in Tampa.
"We know this is not our base, this base belongs to the city of Tampa and we sincerely appreciate all the support [the Buccaneers] give the airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines at MacDill Air Force Base," said Richoux. "We strive to have great relationships with the local community, but what it really means is that people are tripping over themselves to be stationed at MacDill Air Force Base around the world. It's a great community with a great reputation and the community always supports the base. We try to give back as much as we can."
For players like Blount, whose father served in the military, the pleasure of giving back is all theirs.
"My dad was in the military and I know everything these guys go through, constantly on the move and being told we've lost U.S. civilians," said Blount. "This is a game we play; what they are doing is real. They go out and put their lives on the line every day and we just want to show our appreciation."
This week's military events were part of a larger appreciation effort organized by the Buccaneers this season. On October 24, when the team hosted the St. Louis Rams, the Buccaneers held their annual Military Appreciation Game, incorporating a variety of armed forces elements into the contest. A pregame collection drive, military flyover, special honorary captain and halftime Oath of Enlistment were just a few of the many military features that contributed to the Buccaneers' exciting 18-17 victory over the Rams.
For McCoy, Monday's hospital visit was more than enough to remind him of the important role the military plays.
"All I can really say is thank you," said McCoy. "It's an eye-opener. People give speeches once they win awards and start off with God, which is the most important, but then they thank all these different people who may mean something, but I don't think that anyone actually pays attention to the fact that they wouldn't be able to act in this movie, or play this sport, whatever it is, without our military vets. I think they should be appreciated more, so I said thank you. That's all I can really say."