On Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp headquarters, more than 500 boys and girls from the Bay area started the day off on the right foot.
Though the practice fields at One Buccaneer Place were quiet on Tuesday morning, the bleachers were alive as hundreds of children filtered through the team's training facility to receive a brand new pair of shoes, compliments of the Buccaneers.
In its second year, the Lace It Up For Kids program has provided more than 1,000 pairs of new sneakers to children in the Bay area. 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.
"A new pair of shoes is one of the most important things," said Jason Jenkins, director of the North Tampa Boys and Girls Club. "I was thinking back to when I was in school and when you show up with a nice, clean pair of shoes, your confidence is better and your confidence is one of the things that helps you get better grades. When kids feel good about themselves, I think it will show in their behavior and performance in school, and it means a lot to them."
Originally conceived and carried out by former Buccaneer Warren Sapp, the shoe donation concept was brought back to life in 2009 by the Glazer family and the Community Relations department. The team felt it was the right time to reestablish a program that fulfilled a significant need in the community.
"We are more than a football team, we are part of the fabric of the community," said Miray Holmes, the Buccaneers' director of community relations. "When most of these kids go back to school they are underserved, so we wanted to make sure they could all go back with a new pair in a couple weeks."
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.
They were then led to the bleachers overlooking the team's practice fields where footwear associates from a local retail store helped ensure they fit properly.
Yajaira Estrada, a member of the Interbay Boys & Girls Club, was among the first to receive shoes on Tuesday. One of five children from a single-parent household, Estrada was very grateful for the gift.
"There are some less fortunate [people] and it really brings the community together to help out and do this for everybody," said the 16-year-old, "I'll wear these shoes all the time - they're really cute."
Reginald Coffee, one of the boys in attendance, echoed Estrada's sentiments.
"Not everybody gets shoes," said Coffee. "I think this is great what they're doing for kids."
Cheese sticks, milk and yogurt helped assuage the kids' appetites, reinforcing the NFL and National Dairy Council's "Fuel Up To Play 60" initiative. The healthy snacks provided by the Dairy Council helped energize the group for the highlight of the morning: meeting Buccaneers players and cheerleaders. While half a dozen cheerleaders circulated throughout the stands, more than 20 players including safety Tanard Jackson, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter and running back Carnell Williams walked along the fence to sign autographs, pose for pictures and check out each kid's new pair of kicks.
"It is really important for the Bucs' to do this," said Williams. "The kids can go to school and wear new shoes and they'll be happy. It's good to see the smiles on the kids' faces and it's great that the Bucs were able to do that."
For Tyson Barber, a nine-year-old invited to receive new shoes, the entire experience was memorable.
"It's been great out here today," said Barber. "I've gotten to eat, get autographs and get my shoes. I like them, they're black and white. I'm going to wear them to school. I would say thank you to the Bucs - I like my shoes."
Harold Hart, a former player who spent several seasons in the NFL, knows firsthand the positive role that athletes can play in youth development. Now the site supervisor at the North Tampa Community Center, Hart spends his time teaching life lessons and providing positive experiences for some of Tampa's neediest children.
Lace It Up For Kids was one of those opportunities.
"For some of them, this is a lifetime experience," said Hart. "Some don't ever get out of the Sulphur Springs area, transportation-wise, and to get to come out here and meet professional athletes and get new shoes is a good experience."
For current players like Williams, Tuesday's event was just another reminder of the impact that he and his teammates can have.
"We are blessed as players, the organization is blessed and we should definitely be out in the community," said Williams. "It is always good to give back, and you can definitely change people's lives by doing this."