It's July, which means Tampa Bay Buccaneers players are getting in a last few weeks of rest before the start of training camp. Just a few miles away from Buccaneer headquarters, however, there was plenty of action on the gridiron this past weekend.
On Saturday and Sunday, high school players from all corners of the country gathered at Tampa's Jefferson High School for the NFL's highly-competitive National 7-on-7 Tournament. That competition - held during what is often a down time for high school athletes, too - was made possible by the NFL's High School Player Development program and the U.S. National Guard, which helped sponsor the event. In gratitude, the young players used the day before the games began to give back to a group that never has an offseason.
More than 250 players representing all 22 teams in the national finals gathered at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Pinellas Park on Friday and were joined by a host of special guests, including Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris and two of his players, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and center Jeff Faine. Also on hand were NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson, NFL Vice President of Football Operations Ron Hill, Lt. Col. Bill Dones of the National Guard, Buccaneers Cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear.
At the Center, the young players spent the afternoon assembling care packages for 3,000 deployed members of the Florida National Guard. The care packages were sure to bring some of the comforts of home to those protecting the United States overseas, as they included Buccaneer and NFL keepsakes, soap and other toiletries and a Wilson football complete with a pump. Each drawstring bag also included a letter of thanks written by the HSPD participant responsible for assembling the package.
"We don't always understand what they do for us, don't really understand what our reserves do for us, but now we're here to show our support, we're here to show everything that we care about," said Morris. "It's the offseason for us, but it's the on-season for our [military] all the time and we're just going to support those guys and let those guys know that we're thinking about them. We want to let those guys know that we wish they're safe and hope they get home soon."
Participants in the High School Player Development learn valuable on-field techniques to help them in their more standard prep careers, but the NFL also uses the program to impart lessons in character building and life skills. That was certainly the purpose of Friday's pre-tournament event, and it was a big reason why the Buccaneers wanted to be involved in the program.
"Part of what we try to make these players understand is that balance is critical," said Anderson. "A lot of these guys will play in high school and college and a few will go on to play professionally; but they are going to be people in their community and hopefully citizens and leaders and the balances between competition, community, sportsmanship and consciousness.
"When you are talking about the National Guard and the military you are talking about discipline, time management, teamwork...and that is football. A lot of our military people are here and Tampa with the Buccaneers really rose up and said they wanted to be involved and it just came together nationally."
Faine, who grew up in a military family, was eager to be a part of Friday's event at the Reserve Center so that he could help the high-schoolers gain an added appreciation for their fellow citizens' sacrifice.
"I think in general the public just forgets what is going on, and loses touch with the guys that are over there," said Faine. "In your daily routine you kind of almost forget and these guys are 16, 17, 18 years old. These guys definitely forget what is going on over there, and I definitely remember what it was like then."
An appreciation for the military was only part of the reason Benn chose to attend Friday's event. The rookie wideout also believed he could share some words of wisdom with this year's players, as he is a former participant in the HSPD's 7-on-7 program. Each squad in the finals represented an NFL team; some are subsets of a specific high school's football program while others are essentially all-star teams. Benn played two seasons for a team representing the Washington Redskins, and helped his crew take home the national title both times. His high school coach also led the 7-on-7 program, and in fact was back this past weekend with another team representing the Redskins.
Benn thoroughly enjoyed his time in the program and believes it helped broaden his horizons.
"It's a great thing because a lot of guys come together as one, it's not just one whole team that you're used to," he said. "You're meeting guys and you're going there to do something big, and to come together you've got to build chemistry off of this one week.
"A lot of the guys from the inner city had never been on a plane, so that was a chance for us to go on a plane and just go out and meet new people and see different settings and surroundings and just become one team, knowing that we came from different high schools from around the city."
At the time, Benn didn't know if the NFL was within his reach, but he definitely dreamed of making it to the professional level. He knew there were many among the 250 players in town for the tournament who had similar aspirations, and he was eager to share what he had learned in the handful of years since his own 7-on-7 days.
"I'll pretty much tell these guys to go out, compete and have fun," said Benn. "Don't be selfish, play as a team. Don't let anyone say that you can't do anything and just make the best of it, because a lot of guys do not really get the chance to come out here and compete. You're in Tampa, and you're here together right before school starts back up and you start your season of high school football. It's great; you're going to meet new people and experience things you've never experienced before."
One such experience came during Friday's visit, when the young players had the opportunity to try out an Army battle simulator. The simulator even used real weapons, though of course the guns only fired air.
The football played over the next two days was certainly real, if not necessarily the exact form of 11-on-11 competition the high-schoolers are used to. On Saturday and Sunday, the 22 teams competed in pool play and a double-elimination tournament at Jefferson High, located just minutes from One Buccaneer Place and Raymond James Stadium. The home team, representing the Buccaneers, performed extremely well, reaching an all-Florida finals against Belle Glade Glades Central.
Glades Central, representing the Miami Dolphins, took home the title with a hard-fought 52-45 decision in the final game. Glades Central finished the tournament with an unblemished record, giving Jefferson its only two losses of the weekend. Earlier in the week, the Jefferson Dragons had also gone 9-0 in a regional qualifying round.
The Dragons' most important accomplishment of the week, however, likely took place on Friday at the Armed Forces Reserve Center. There, they extended a helping hand to a very deserving group of men and women and learned a lesson that will stay with them no matter how far they go in the world of sports.
"It's huge," said Faine. "There are so many times that the media is dominated with negative stories, and there aren't enough positive stories. The earlier you drive into their heads that it's important to give back, the better. We're blessed to be in the position as professional athletes and even as collegiate athletes and in the high school ranks. For these guys to be in the position to help out and give back to their local and national communities makes a huge difference."