On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played host to a friendly competition in their own backyard, in the process promoting physical fitness among area youth.
Fifty local middle-school students gathered on the Buccaneers' practice fields for the annual "Play 60 Challenge," a fitness contest promising grants for their schools' physical education departments. The event pitted five co-ed teams in a series of events ranging from the 100-yard dash to football throwing to push-ups, and a group of Buccaneer players were on hand to provide encouragement.
The Play 60 event fell on a particularly pleasant day in the Bay area. While the middle-school challengers had afternoon classes waiting for them, the participating Buccaneer players had no obligations for them at team headquarters besides their desire to help the visiting students compete as hard as possible.
"It's a beautiful day out here," said linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. "I'm out here competing with these kids, trying to get them going, trying to get the competition to come out of them, so it's huge."
McKenzie was joined on the field by a group of equally enthusiastic Buccaneers that included wide receiver Arrelious Benn, safety Dominique Harris, tackle James Lee, cornerback Myron Lewis and running back Kregg Lumpkin. They weren't asked to do anything more than provide a few words of encouragement, but most of the Tampa Bay players couldn't help but get more involved. McKenzie spent much of his time at the 100-yard dash station, allowing the student-athletes to chase him down the sideline in pursuit of prizes and school pride.
Wednesday's event culminated the season-long Play 60 program between the NFL and the American Heart Association, an initiative that inspires students to be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. Throughout the 2010 football season, Buccaneers players and Heart Association representatives visited local middle schools throughout Tampa Bay to encourage healthy living through fitness and football drills. On Wednesday, the participating schools came together to compete against one another for much-needed athletic funds.
"Events like this happen all around the nation, but they're all different," said Suzy O'Malley, vice president of the Tampa Bay Metro American Heart Association. "Every [NFL team] is allowed to do their own thing, and this is one of the best ones. The kids really get it and the players are fantastic."
McKenzie, a Bay area native and former University of South Florida player, agreed with O'Malley.
"To come out here with these kids and do a little extra workout with them, it's competition, it gets the kids going and these kids love it," said McKenzie. "They're having a good time, the competition is coming out, and everyone's just out here playing around, school to school, and just enjoying it."
Select participants were chosen for both academic and athletic accomplishments. Students from Adams Middle, Barrington Middle, Orange Grove Middle, Roland Park Middle and Tomlin Middle Schools came out for the event, which provided them with the rare opportunity to interact with players like McKenzie, Lee and Benn. The Buccaneers players, no strangers to grueling afternoons on the One Buc practice fields, knew how to keep the morale high among the young athletes.
"It's a little pain here and there, everything's not easy, so we're giving them a little challenge and trying to get them to finish," said Lee, who oversaw the sit-up station. "It's a great feeling to have these kids come out and enjoy our presence, just to see them compete and work against each other."
The morning's competitive nature rubbed off on Benn, who couldn't back away from a challenge proposed by Roland Park student Ernest Mills. When Mills proposed that he and Benn square off on a throwing contest, the Buccaneer immediately obliged – and was subsequently stunned – when the middle-schooler out-threw him by more than 20 feet.
"He threw further than me in the passing drill, but I just got through working out," Benn joked.
Having witnessed his teammate's attempt, Lewis seemed less confident in squaring off against one of the students.
"I don't think I would do too well; some of these kids are amazing," said Lewis. "They've got a lot of athletic ability, a lot of skills, and it's nice to be able to see them come out here and have fun."
Lewis, who spent most of the morning at the punting station, tried to offer some helpful tips to increase the participants' accuracy and distance. The cornerback recalled experiences from high school, where he played both kicker and punter, among other positions.
"I was giving them some pointers even though I wasn't too good," Lewis explained. "I was telling them to put the laces up, point the ball down and kick the meat of the ball and it will go pretty far," Lewis explained.
While Wednesday's experience brought back memories, Lewis was quickly reminded – through a few less-than-stellar attempts of his own – that his professional expertise is likely best suited for the defensive backfield.
"I was like, 'Man, back in the day I used to punt, kick and do it all, and I kind of want to do it again,'" he recalled. "But then I realized that I'm back to reality and all I can do is play cornerback."
At the event conclusion, the scores were tallied and the awards were presented, with Tomlin Middle taking home the top prize of $1,500. Coming in second was Barrington Middle ($1,250), followed by Adams Middle ($1,000), Roland Park Middle ($750) and Orange Grove Middle ($500). Players also presented autographed mini-footballs to students who placed first in each drill, providing a memorable keepsake for some of the day's most successful student-athletes.
"Hopefully, they'll carry this back to their home and stress to their siblings and their parents the importance of physical activity and staying healthy throughout their life," said Roland Park's Joyce Young, the school's physical education teacher.
Mission accomplished, according to eighth-grader Luciano Perdomo.
"I've learned that there are many ways you can get active, not just throwing a ball around," said Perdomo. "You can go out and do push-ups, sit-ups outside – you can do anything, and have a good time with friends."