The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the youngest team in the NFL, but opening day of the club's 2011 training camp was a special day for an even younger group of football players. On Friday, the Junior Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a youth football organization in Tampa, took a special trip to One Buccaneer Place to take part in a Gatorade Junior Training Camp session and watch the Bucs' first public practice of the year.
The Junior Buccaneers, made up of students from 12 different schools throughout the Bay area, range in age from four to 15 and compete in all levels of youth play. What's particularly unique about this group of athletes is that they have been "adopted" by the NFL's Buccaneers and will use the same logo and team colors as part of a unique agreement with the team and the league.
Kenneth McAllister oversees the organization, which offers several levels of competitive football to underserved youth. They play against 48 other teams across the entire state of Florida.
"These kids come from the inner city," he said. "If you haven't been there, you don't know. So we try to be a beacon for these kids to look up to, and we really want these guys on the [Buccaneers] to be someone they can look up to also."
The team currently has about 100 participants, and McAllister said he hopes they don't have to turn anyone away during next week's tryouts. Unfortunately, due to limited resources, they can only handle so many kids.
On Friday afternoon, the group of 78 boys and girls gathered on the practice field before the real Buccaneers left the locker room. They caught passes, broke through tackling dummies and performed agility drills with the help of Buccaneers staff. Gatorade Junior Training Camp is a free grassroots program that emphasizes education, exercise and positive choices for kids in a safe and fun environment. The clinic is designed for children in fifth to eighth grades.
After their drills were over, the team moved from the practice field to a special VIP area, where they performed cheers for fans that had arrived early to try and spread some Buccaneers team spirit.
The junior players were then treated to front row seats at the first full-speed practice of training camp. Buccaneer quarterbacks Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson and Mike Coughlin took snaps right in front of the wide-eyed youngsters.
Several players, including running back LeGarrette Blount, stopped by for an autograph session just before practice began. When the kids swarmed the fences to get a signature or snap a picture, Blount greeted the group with open arms and a wide smile, signing as much as he could until the horn sounded for the start of practice.
"The Buccaneers are proud of the strong relationships we forge within the community," said Miray Holmes, director of community relations for the team. "We're excited to treat this group to a special day at camp, and hopefully provide some memorable experiences that they'll keep with them forever."
Following practice, Head Coach Raheem Morris greeted the students near the field and encouraged them to keep up the hard work. Morris has become a champion in the community since he took over the Bucs' head job in 2009, and he was thrilled to see a big turnout at the first public practice.
At the conclusion of practice, the Junior Buccaneers were abuzz with all they had seen.
"We think it's a good experience for the kids," McAllister said. "It's great for them to be out on the field and participate in this atmosphere and this environment. It's very special, they just love this."