Jill Nicolson came all the way from Connecticut just to attend Thursday's NFL 101 clinic
Like most of the women who participated in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' "NFL 101" clinic on Thursday night, sponsored by the Eckerd Corporation, Jill Nicolson is a Buc supporter and a fan of the game of football in general. What set Nicolson apart from the rest of the 600 women at Raymond James Stadium Thursday was that the mother of four had flown from Torrington, Connecticut just to attend the increasingly popular clinic.
Torrington, we should point out, is approximately 1,200 miles from Tampa. There aren't a lot of one-day Torrington-Tampa commutes, but when Nicolson found out she was one of 300 winners, out of over 3,000 entrants, of a spot in the clinic, she jumped at the chance.
"I love football, I love to learn more about the game and I love the Buccaneers," said Nicolson. "I saw the NFL 101 advertised on Buccaneers.com, so I entered online."
The clinic is hosted each year by Buccaneer coaches and players and is designed to give female fans greater insight into the game. The NFL is the most popular professional sports league among American women. When given the chance to participate in this one-of-a-kind event, Nicolson didn't hesitate for even a second.
"I didn't believe my daughter at first when she said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on the phone," she said. "I picked it up and they told me I was one of the winners and I screamed and booked my flight immediately."
Women who attend the clinic are given a more in-depth knowledge of the game and a feel for all of information that NFL players must absorb in order to perform at a peak level. All 600 women who attended NFL 101 on Thursday – each winner was allowed to bring one guest – received a playbook that details the basics of the game, including history, strategy, terminology, formations and positions. Eckerd also provided a gift pack for each participant.
The event kicked off at 6:00 p.m. with Buccaneers Linebackers Coach Joe Barry and Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin splitting the group into two sets of about 300 each and going over the basics of NFL defense. The lessons were not watered down. Coach Barry spent some time discussing the intangibles that go into making great football players, such as passion and work ethic, but he also broke down eight-man fronts, zone blitzes and gap responsibilities.
Meanwhile Tomlin was telling his group about his prized defensive backs and the assortment of coverages they run on a normal Sunday afternoon, ranging from zone to man to blitz to zone dog. Tomlin also described the Buccaneers 'Cover Two' scheme in the simplest terms, stating, "What happens when they throw the ball is we close, we swarm. If we don't intercept it or bat it down, we know someone on the other team is going down hard and fast."
Next up were Tight Ends Coach Art Valero and Running Backs Coach Wilson, who shared similarly detailed information on the offensive side of the ball. Some of the lessons might require a follow-up class.
"I learned a few things, but it was a lot of information," said Darlene Murphy. "I'm not sure I consumed it all."
Valero and Wilson explained play calls, audibles, personnel groupings and the differences between trips, spread and solo formations.
"I'm going to take my playbook on Monday Night and see if I can see the setups that they diagrammed for us," said Murphy. "I think the coaches did a great job."
Coach Wilson took a different path, constantly quizzing his group about the formations he had discussed. At one point, he even had the women line up and bark the play calls. Alas, Wilson had to flag the group for several motion penalties, as the women struggled to master the counter-motion set.
"I wanted to learn the difference between a tight end and a fullback and what a defensive back was," said Nicolson. "I know about the downs and basics, but there are so many idiosyncrasies about the game of football and it's hard to pick it up when you're watching it on television."
After the classroom work, the women joined Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia, as well as long snapper Ryan Benjamin and wide receiver Karl Williams, on the Raymond James Stadium field for some work in the kicking and return games.
Bisaccia gave a presentation regarding the importance of special teams and the specific jobs that Benjamin and Williams perform every Sunday. After Benjamin demonstrated his snapping skills to the hoots and hollers of the crowd, a group of women pulled from the audience were asked to field punts that were shot out of the 'Jugs' gun.
After a brief tutorial from Williams, the leading punt returner in Buccaneer history, the women were ready to test their own hands. Murphy was the first up and she nailed it, fielding the ball cleanly, albeit with a somewhat unorthodox style, and returning it for a touchdown.
"It was awesome," said Murphy. "I didn't think I'd be able to see the ball with the helmet on but I found it. When I was running it in though I felt like I was running with lead feet."
The next several contestants weren't as lucky as balls bounced off hands, helmets and shoulder pads on their way to the ground. The women learned that catching a punt is one of the most deceivingly difficult tasks in the NFL. They also had a fantastic time, during that drill and throughout the evening.
"I had the best time today and I learned so much about the game of football," said Nicolson. "I'm even more addicted than I was before."
Toys for Tots
It was also a good night at Raymond James Stadium for kids.
The Buccaneers, the Glazer Family Foundation and Eckerd Corporation announced the beginning of their annual Toys for Tots donation collection at Thursday's NFL 101 clinic.
The women attending the event were asked to bring toys to support the drive, and they responded with over 950 donations.
In addition, the Glazer Family Foundation and the Marine Corps Reserve will collect unwrapped toys at Raymond James Stadium on December 14, when the Bucs play the Houston Texans. All toys collected will be distributed to less fortunate children in the Bay area community.
This year celebrates the 27th anniversary of the Toys for Tots partnership between the Bucs and the Marines.