General Manager Jason Licht poses with Travis Zink at a training camp practice.*
Every day during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, General Manager Jason Licht watches the team's practice from beginning to end. It's part of an ongoing evaluation of the roster Licht has put together, a probing for strengths and weaknesses. He's interested in individual player performances, of course, but also in seeing certain overall team traits, such as speed, athleticism, instincts, grit and toughness.
At many Buccaneer camp practices, Licht can witness a perfect example of that last trait with a quick glance to the sideline. That's where Travis Zink often has a front-row seat.
Zink, a Brandon native, grew up in a family that has owned Buccaneer season tickets since the 1976 inaugural season. He's also an avid user of social media, and as his handle would suggest, he employs it largely to support the Buccaneers and the University of Florida football team.
Twitter is also how Zink managed to forge a connection with Licht not long after he came aboard as the Buccaneers' general manager in 2014. Licht was still feeling out the social media platform and gradually gaining followers (he's up to 5,600 now). Zink and his best friend, Kris Scanlon were two of the first, and Licht followed them back. Soon, Zink became the first follower to send Licht a direct message on Twitter, which the latter noticed during a bit of free time with his family.
"I was on vacation a couple years ago, just sitting around with my kids on the beach and I thought it would be a good time to check Twitter," said Licht. "I noticed they had sent me a direct message and I invited them to training camp. They've become really close friends, and friends of the organization. They're super-loyal fans, like most of our fans are."
Needless to say, Zink and Scanlon weren't expecting such a quick response, or necessarily a response at all. It took a minute to sink in.
"It was cool," enthused Zink. "I didn't believe him at first. No way! Then we realized it was real and I thought, 'This is cool!' We asked him if we could come see One Buc Place and he answered right away, 'Yeah!'"
Scanlon, who has watched many a Buccaneer game with Zink and his older brother, accompanies his friend on their trips to Buc headquarters. Scanlon and Zink have shared their passion for the Bucs for 18 years, even if their college allegiances are split between the Gators and the Seminoles. They've been around long enough to have experienced the franchise's peak years, and Zink thinks Licht has the Bucs poised for another run of success. Zink was particularly supportive of Tampa Bay's first-round pick in the 2016 draft, who just happened to be a Florida Gator.
"I remember the Super Bowl, of course, but the game at the Vet, that was the big one," said Zink, referring to Tampa Bay's 2002 NFC Championship Game victory over the Eagles at Veteran's Stadium. "That's more important to me than the Super Bowl, to be honest. I really hated the Eagles back then!
"Now I think Jason's done a great job with this team. I like to take credit for [Florida cornerback] Vernon Hargreaves. I told Jason in December, 'Go get Hargreaves,' and we've joked about it ever since. We have the most talent we've had in a long time. It's going to show eventually, and soon I think. I would anticipate a Wild Card appearance this year, if not better."
Scanlon shares Zink's confidence in Licht but also continues to be surprised at how much the Bucs' G.M. values his early connection with a pair of avid fans.
"We just started talking, not expecting to get a response from him, and next thing you know he invited us out to see One Buc, get a tour," said Scanlon. "We've become pretty close friends ever since. You expect him to be overwhelmed with football, and of course he has his personal life as well. For him to take the time and reach out to us, that was pretty special. Travis and I both grew up loving this team."
The toughness that Licht values in his friend comes from Zink's battle with cerebral palsy, which has clearly not dampened his enthusiasm for life (or the Buccaneers, for that matter!).
"I just love his entire outlook on life," said Licht. "It really puts things in perspective. Just like we look for players who have dealt with adversity, he's that type of guy. He's very, very tough.
"It gives you a little inspiration for the day when you see that you've got fans like Travis, ones that want a championship so bad. It makes you realize how big this is and how many people are counting on us to get us there."