"It's football time in Tampa, y'all, and it's about to go down!"
As much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking forward to Gerald McCoy wreaking havoc in the middle of their defense, the rookie defensive tackle has yet to play an NFL game that counts. This much is already clear, however: The young man has a way with words.
The Buccaneers held their annual and ultra-popular Official Season Kickoff Party Presented by Miller Lite on Friday night at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, and it was a wild and enthusiastic affair. Players hyped the crowd; the crowd hyped the players; chants were chanted; mini-footballs and beads were flung everywhere. Essentially, the Buccaneers and their fans spent four-plus hours Friday night letting each other know how stoked they were for the beginning of the 2010 football season.
But it was McCoy who perfectly encapsulated what the night was about. That's his quote above, and it came after he spent a few minutes stalking the stage, inciting chants and generally amping up an already electric evening. McCoy took the Jannus Live stage as part of a fearsome Buccaneer foursome that also included starting quarterback Josh Freeman, burgeoning star left tackle Donald Penn and the ultimate Buccaneer team player, Earnest Graham. Everyone in the place – the chorus line of players, coaches and cheerleaders who took the stage and the hundreds of red-jersey-clad fans filling the venue – shared McCoy's feelings. It's time for some football!
The Official Season Kickoff Party is annually one of the most popular dates on the Bucs' calendar, similar to FanFest in that it gives players and fans a chance to share their excitement about the upcoming season. It had previously been held, to great success, at Channelside in downtown Tampa but it was relocated to St. Pete's popular concert destination in 2010. The new venue proved to be a massive hit.
"The players and the fans don't get many chances like this to mingle together," said Penn, who was impressed by the ever-growing crowd. "People have been coming up and introducing themselves to me all night. I think it's great for the fans and I'm enjoying it, too. This is the first year I was asked to do this, and I was happy and honored."
Penn, Freeman, McCoy and Graham all took the stage together during the second player segment of the evening. Before the night was over, Buccaneers fans heard from those four as well as Head Coach Raheem Morris, RB Kareem Huggins, WR Sammie Stroughter, WR Mike Williams, LB Adam Hayward, LB Quincy Black, DE Kyle Moore, WR Arrelious Benn and S Sean Jones. The players took the stage in waves, separated by music and exhilarating performances by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, and took turns firing up the crowd.
"This is like a pep rally that you had in college and high school," said Stroughter. "I like the feel and the atmosphere of this place. It's really great. I know everybody's been waiting for this. Football's back around, man, especially in Tampa Bay. This is a great time to be a Buccaneer."
Fans grabbed autographs and pictures when they could and eagerly awaited the next group of players to take the stage. Scott Ledger of the Buccaneers Radio Network emceed the event and made sure the fans heard from all of their favorite players. It was telling that the packed audience saved some of their most raucous applause for such young Bucs as Freeman, Williams and Stroughter. Williams, the fourth-round receiver out of Syracuse who is rapidly emerging as a top playmaker, was extremely impressed by the event.
"You always need that 12th man with you," he said. "It's amazing to come out here and see all these fans. I didn't know what to expect when I came out here, but this is crazy. Hopefully we can fill up the stadium by getting some wins. All these fans that are out here tonight, we want them there at the stadium on Sundays. That's on us. We want them to see us start winning.
Friday night's event might have been a pep rally, as Stroughter said, but it was also a party. Fans were still lining up to get into Jannus Live an hour after the event had begun, and the courtyard was packed with revelers. Many of the attendees were excited to witness the night's musical entertainment, provided by Paper Tongues and DJ Mix Master Mike. It was an easy and enjoyable transition from pep rally to concert.
But before music took over the night, the Buccaneers held court on the Jannus Live stage. The evening's incredible turnout, the sea of red jerseys and the wave of cheers when ever a new group of players took the stage made it clear that – as McCoy suggested – this thing was about to go down.
"I was really impressed with the attendance and how loud they were," said Morris. "I had a nice little earthquake feeling up there on the stage. They really got me going. It was a lot like a game-day atmosphere. It was a lot of fun. Our players really appreciate the fans and the people that love them. They do nothing but support us. My guys are always out in the community. They're no strangers to the fans and they're making me very proud. That's part of being a Tampa Bay Buccaneer."