The first thing that Donald Penn noticed when he pulled back into the One Buccaneer Place parking lot on Tuesday evening was that…well, it wasn't that easy to pull into the parking lot.
Penn had already put in a day's work, with meetings in the morning and afternoon and a walk-through and practice in between. After a short trip home, he was back at the office in the early evening, as a rainy day was giving way to a cool, crisp evening. As he pulled up, he realized that he was one of about, oh, 600 folks trying to gain entrance.
If that sounds like an annoyance, in fact it was quite the opposite. The line of cars bisecting the front entrance to One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday evening was a sign that the event Penn was attending would be a smashing success. Penn cut through the line and into the lot, but he knew he would soon be greeting each and every family that came in the far entrance.
Penn and the rest of the members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line were back at team headquarters on Tuesday evening to conduct the third annual "Turkey Time with the O-Line" event. Teaming with Publix Super Markets, one of the Buccaneers' valued Pewter Partners, the Buccaneer players provide Thanksgiving meals for hundreds of local families in need. This year, in their biggest outreach yet, the linemen provided turkeys, pies and a bag of Thanksgiving meal-building items to 600 families.
Penn could see how many lives were being touched when he pulled back into the One Buc lot, and it warmed his heart.
"It really made me think when I was pulling up today," said the Bucs' starting left tackle. "I got here a little early and the line was out there really far. That's what let me know that it's starting to get bigger and bigger every year. This an O-line event, something that we've been doing ever since I've been here. We get to help families in need so it's something really special. I'm glad that I can be a part of it."
Families who pulled through the line were handed the turkeys, bags and pies by the Bucs' linemen, as well as a host of volunteers comprised of Buccaneer employees and their families, Student Advisory Board members and Publix representatives. They were also greeted by Buccaneers Cheerleaders and, of course, team mascot Captain Fear, who livened up the proceedings by hopping into vans and riding in the cabs of trucks. Most of the vehicles that came through the line were full of kids, many of whom were more excited by the players than the food they were delivering.
"Folks are definitely appreciative of the food, and you can tell that they are, but I think it makes all the difference in the world when it's delivered by their favorite Bucs player," said Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten. "The smiles on their faces are huge and when the players walk up to their car, it's gigantic. It's an electrifying atmosphere and it's so great to be a part of it."
Having participated in this event for several years running, the Bucs' veteran offensive linemen knew exactly what to do. They snagged turkeys from nearby crates, loaded up their arms with the food sacks and stacked pies five or 10 high before wading into the two rows of waiting cars. Often, a delivered turkey was followed by a posed photograph with the kids.
Tampa Bay's offensive linemen involve themselves in countless community events during the year, but starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood knows that his crew's obvious bulk makes them the perfect players to lead the charitable efforts on this particular holiday.
"We always get really excited to get out here in the community and help as many people as we can," he said. "We look at Thanksgiving as a great opportunity for the offensive line to get involved. It's known as an eating holiday and we're all big guys; we like to eat so we like to share the wealth."
Unlike Trueblood, Buccaneers rookie Marc Dile, a practice squad linemen who played his college ball at nearby USF, was new to the event. He could identify with many of the families in line and, having become a part of the Bay area community during his college days, he was thrilled to see those less fortunate in the area find their way to a happier holiday season.
"I'm from the inner city, and to see these guys take their time out to feed people that are less fortunate, so they can have a meal for Thanksgiving, I think it's just a blessing," said Dile. "Any time you can step out and really help those that are truly in need, put food on a family's table that's struggling, I'm there. People here are struggling. We're very fortunate to play this game, and God has given us a talent to play this game. I think it's our duty to give back in this time of need, the holidays. It's a beautiful thing."
At one point, Dile handed a turkey through the driver's window of a minivan driven by local resident Tonya Fers. Trying to satisfy a family of six during the Thanksgiving week, Fers was momentarily overcome by emotion as she pulled out of the line.
"There are six of us, so this really helps out for Thanksgiving," she said. "It was really awesome for the children to be able to see the Bucs. We're just so thankful. It's just a blessing to be able to participate in this. I had a Buccaneers shirt that someone had given me and [her three boys] were all fighting over it. This was awesome for them. They were so excited coming over here."
Hundreds of cars, trucks and vans followed Fers' van through the line, all of them either collecting food for their hungry families or helping out another family in need. Players and volunteers greeted every family, handing out bundles of food, and warm holiday wishes were passed in both directions.
"There's no better time to give then during the holiday season," said Patten. "When you see the number of families that have lined up here to receive a meal it warms your heart and makes you realize that we're doing the right thing for our community."