The rain fell hard Monday on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, but that didn't stop throngs of children from filing in to the bleachers to watch a soggy practice and cheer on their favorite team. Six hundred boys and girls from the Bay area filtered through the team's training facility during the afternoon in order to receive a brand new pair of shoes, compliments of the Buccaneers.
In its third year, the Lace It Up For Kids program has provided more than 1,600 pairs of new sneakers to underserved local children. The charitable initiative aims to provide youth with an item as essential as shoes at the perfect time - the start of a new school year.
The shoe donation concept was originally conceived and carried out by former Buccaneer Warren Sapp, who just happened to visit One Buccaneer Place the same week, and it was brought back to life in 2009 by the team's Community Relations department. The Buccaneers felt it was worthwhile to reestablish a program that fulfilled a significant need in the community.
"There is more to this organization than football," said Miray Holmes, director of community relations for the Buccaneers. "We want to make a big impact in the community. Many of these kids are underserved, so providing simple things, like a pair of new shoes for school, helps them and their families out tremendously."
For more than three hours, buses and vans traveling from local Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and numerous community centers arrived at One Buccaneer Place and dropped their young passengers off in Treasure Cove, the team's fan-friendly entrance to Training Camp. After a greeting by team staff members and volunteers, each child received a Buccaneers drawstring bag with his or her name on it. Inside each bag was a new pair of shoes, targeted to the size and style pre-selected by each boy and girl.
Buccaneers Cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear roamed the crowd, providing entertainment and laughs for the kids, while the players performed drills just a few feet in front of the wide-eyed spectators.
Tara Lineberry, a site and camp director at YMCA Suncoast, in Clearwater, led 18 children from Pinellas County to the practice facility to receive their shoes.
"These kids are here because they desperately need shoes for the upcoming school year," she said. "We partnered with the United Way to help bring them out as a part of our summer program. Projects like these will really make a difference for the families and the kids moving forward."
The Dairy Council of Florida provided cheese sticks, milk and yogurt, reinforcing the NFL and National Dairy Council's "Fuel up To Play 60" initiative, while Pizza Hut supplied bread sticks for the children as well. The healthy snacks provided by the Dairy Council helped energize the group for the highlight of the morning: meeting the entire team after practice.
Players headed over to the bleachers to sign autographs and check out the kids' new sneakers. The players were excited to see how many kids the program was able to serve. Some of them, like running back LeGarrette Blount, stayed long after the practice was over to sign as many autographs as possible. Blount simply smiled as he signed autographs until all of the kids had gone.
"That was a lot of fun," he said as he walked back into the locker room.
A group of 10 and 11-year-old boys who are summer camp attendees with the Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) enjoyed the practice and maybe tried to learn a few new plays as well. Two of them were football players, and the rest said they were big-time Buccaneers fans.
"I love it, I am having an amazing time," said 10-year-old Dymetri Hamlin. "I want to see Gerald McCoy because I play defensive line."
Some of the boys from P.A.L. said it was their first time getting to see the Buccaneers in person. Their cheers continued throughout practice and into the autograph session as players like quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn greeted them at the stands.
"This is a great day," said Reche Cooper, a 12-year-old from Hillsborough County who also plays football. "I got new shoes and I get to see the players run around so fast and practice in the rain. It was a really cool day."