The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be spending the week in Foxboro practicing against the New England Patriots, but their home field has seen plenty of action the last two days. And while the Buccaneers are using their shared work with the Patriots to hone their skills and prepare for Friday night's game at Gillette Stadium, the athletes running the turf at Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday learned lessons that will last a lifetime.
For the second consecutive year, the NFL Play 60 Character Camp has come to Tampa, providing approximately 200 local children with an opportunity to learn football skills, adopt a healthier lifestyle and absorb character lessons that will help them in every aspect of their lives. The camp, created and run by Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz, started in six NFL cities – including Tampa – in 2012, expanded to 13 cities this year and aims to reach the hometowns of all 32 teams in 2014.
The mission of the NFL PLAY 60 Character Camp is to make a positive impact on youth through teaching football skills, emphasizing exercise, and reinforcing the importance of character in athletics and in life. After forming the Muñoz Agency with his son, Michael, Muñoz visited the NFL offices in New York and devised the plan to take the league's Play 60 platform and add character-building efforts into a fun and engaging two-day camp. Among the values stressed by the Character camp are faith, gratitude, honor, integrity,loyalty, responsibility, self-control and truthfulness.
"We still get to use football as a platform and we get to teach them football techniques, but now we've incorporated character traits," said Muñoz. "We try to teach the kids about being a person of character, and now we have several team-building exercises that we implemented into the program. They get here and they might think it's all football but it isn't. They're still being taught quite a bit of football, though."
The NFL Play 60 Character Camp reached out to the Hillsborough Out of School Time Program (H.O.S.T) to find its participants, and the H.O.S.T. administrators rounded up students from approximately 60 schools. The camp makes an effort to reach the Hispanic community in each city it visits but the overall experience is inclusive and multi-cultural.
"For the most part, for many of the students here, to be able to come to a game, to see and be on an actual football field, is a new experience," said H.O.S.T. District Supervisor Debbie Zenk. "They watch it on TV, they know who their favorite players are, they can appreciate the game, but now to get down here and be with folks who are in the world of the NFL is incredible. Even to get to a game is tough for a lot of folks and a lot of families. This is just above-and-beyond, to be on the field and working with NFL folks…it's something these kids would otherwise definitely not be able to experience."
The success of the two-day camp also hinged on the efforts of the Buccaneers, who were one of just two teams this year to allow the proceedings to take place inside their home stadiums. Buccaneer staffers helped coordinate and run the camp and Buc alumni such as Jorge Diaz helped coach the young visitors.
"Any time the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can have a presence in the community, the kids are so inspired by the players," said Diaz, who likened the experience to an NFL rookie taking the field in an NFL stadium for the first time. "To be able to participate in Raymond James Stadium is a huge thing in itself, because in a sense it is a field of dreams. Whether they're football dreams or dreams of taking any other stage in life, what they can learn out here by participating in this camp are life lessons that will stick with them forever."
Added Zenk: "When a community has a team like the Buccaneers that really reaches out, in whatever manner that they reach out and whatever children and families they touch, the district and our students absolutely benefit from it. This experience is something that will be life-changing for some of these students today."
Part of the reason that Muñoz targets Hispanic families in the NFL cities is to help the league expand its fanbase into more communities.
"The neat thing about it is, for a lot of these kids it might be the first time they've been exposed to a football camp," said the former Cincinnati Bengal offensive tackle who spent the 1993 preseason with the Buccaneers just before his retirement. "With the league, what we're trying to do is not only do the football, the character and the Play 60 methods, but bring some new football fans into the fold. We wanted to reach those kids who might be playing the 'other football' – soccer – and introduce them to American football. With that population growing, we want to tap into those younger fans and get them tapped into American football. This is an Hispanic outreach, but it's not exclusively Hispanic. It's great because they get home and now they're introducing their parents to the game and that continues to grow the football fanbase."
Over the course of the two-day camp, the participating children learned football skills, formed teams, played seven-on-seven games, competed in individual skill challenges, discussed character-building, were taught keys to living a healthy lifestyle and, most importantly, had hours of fun.
"We share the Play 60 message – stay active, get some exercise every day, eat well. And then the character component – we're giving them eight character traits and the responsibility of learning those traits. And then we're doing team-building exercises – you've got to work together as a team in whatever you do.
"But the fun thing for them, with all of that said, is that we're here in Raymond James Stadium running around for two full days, and that will be a lifetime memory. There's multiple experiences they can take away, and hopefully they'll take away the message of making these habits in their lives."