Staff Sgt. Walter Simpson picked up a pair of drumsticks and pounded out the beat to Heart's "Barracuda." Seventy-one hundred miles away, his little daughter, Kamille, did the same, with perhaps a little less precision and a little more childish glee.
The best part was, Simpson and his daughter could watch each other work their drum sets. Such was the connective power of the second annual Pro vs. GI Joe competition at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday.
Pro vs. GI Joe is a nonprofit organization that coordinates video game contests between professional athletes and troops overseas via internet video feeds. The organization was founded two-and-a-half years ago by Greg Zinone and his wife, Addie, and its first major event was staged last year at One Buccaneer Place. Since, Zinone's group has arranged such athlete/soldier competitions with roughly half of the NFL's teams, eagerly returning to Tampa for another round between trips to Arizona and Seattle.
The setup for the Pro vs. GI Joe competition is particularly impressive at One Buccaneer Place, where the team's state-of-the art team auditorium is transformed into one enormous gaming pit. At the front of the room, the giant screen on which coaches and players usually watch game tape is filled with a video stream of the soldiers on the other end of the competition and/or the XBox game taking place between them and Buccaneers players.
With the help of Addie, the organization's overseas coordinator, Greg Zinone hooks the participating football players up with a group of soldiers serving in the U.S. Military overseas. On Tuesday, Buccaneer players tested their gaming abilities against a group of nine servicemen stationed in Qatar.
Zinone says it's sometimes difficult to convince the troops overseas that they will really be interacting with professional athletes.
"This is an unbelievable opportunity for them," he said. "We are bringing professional athletes to them, even stationed 8,000 miles away. And when they do play, they're loving it. They're having a blast. It's not all about the game. You have professional athletes on the other side of a web cam that you're able to talk to over the headsets. That's an incredible opportunity for the guys."
On the Tampa end on Tuesday, taking turns at the controls for "Guitar Hero 5," "Call of Duty" and "Madden NFL 09," were cornerback E.J. Biggers, linebacker Adam Hayward, quarterback Josh Johnson, cornerback Elbert Mack, defensive tackle Roy Miller, defensive end Kyle Moore and running back Clifton Smith. Several of their teammates stopped by to watch the action, including defensive tackle Dre Moore and cornerback Marcus Hamilton. The rest of the auditorium was filled with visitors from the nearby MacDill Air Force Base as well as family members of the troops on the video feed.
On the Qatar end were members of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing stationed in Qatar's USO Central Command: Simpson, Cpt. Anthony Puleo, Staff Sgt. Michael Gardiner, Sr. Airman Leonard Franklin, Sr. Airman Ryan Hunt, Airman 1st Class Joshua Halter, Staff Sgt. Robert Barney and Staff Sgt. Thomas Jackson.
Though Rock Band – on paper – didn't seem to favor either side, the two groups each got to engage each other on their own virtual turf.
"It's fun for us to play against each other," said Moore. "We're good at football so they're going to play us in the football game and see who's the best. And when we play Call of Duty, they actually shoot targets every day. We're going to see who's better in both of those."
Though there were some enthusiastic performers – Elbert Mack on vocals comes to mind – the Buccaneer players were a bit lacking in their musical chops, and the 379th Wing's band clearly outclassed them in the opening event. In fact, it wasn't until ringers from MacDill came down to relieve the players for the last of four songs – Boston's "More Than a Feeling" – that the Tampa side prevailed in Guitar Hero.
A long series of Call of Duty and Madden battles proved much more competitive, however, with victories notched in both Florida and the Middle East. Miller, K. Moore and a visiting serviceman from MacDill won one notable Call of Duty competition, though a team of Hayward, Mack and Smith was bested by their Qatar counterparts. Often visitors from MacDill would sit behind Buccaneer players during their Call of Duty games and give them tactical advice for the battlefield.
"I think this is a great experience to see these guys having fun," said Johnson. "The only thing you really see on TV is them putting in a lot of hard work, doing what they're doing over there. We get to experience another side of them and they get to see another side of us, and I think that's good. The video games kind of bring out the inner child in everybody."
When not at one of the controllers, the Buccaneers roamed around the auditorium, signing autographs, taking pictures and chatting with the visitors from MacDill. They also did the honors with a series of giveaways provided by Zinone and his organization. Each time a Tampa-based gamer would win, Pro vs. GI Joe would hand out another prize, such as an XBox game or a guitar accessory for Guitar Hero.
"It's an honor to be able to come here and spend a few minutes with these guys," said Miller who, like Moore, is the son of a serviceman. "If you look at them on the screen, there are over there smiling and having a good time. It's a really tough time for them and just to be able to come out here and put a smile on their faces means a lot to us.
"My dad was in Iraq when I was younger, but we didn't have an opportunity to do stuff like this. It's amazing how technology has advanced. I know how these families feel. This definitely hits home with me because I know my dad would appreciate something like this."
Staff Sgt. Simpson clearly did. When Kamille was brought up to the web cam a second time during the Call of Duty portion of the competition, he waved to his daughter and blew kisses. Kamille's mother, Lauren Brown, said that Staff Sgt. Simpson is halfway through a six-month tour in the Middle East, and his family is eager to have him home.
Brown held her daughter as she waved on camera, and chased her around the room as she interacted with Buccaneers Cheerleaders and players. It's doubtful anyone in the room enjoyed the two-and-a-half hours at One Buc Place more than little Kamille.
"She hasn't seen [her father] in three months," said Brown. "I didn't know it would be like this. We're having a lot of fun. He's been talking about this. It was a surprise for him that we were here."