QB Brad Johnson bowled a combined 380 over two games, edging WR Fabian Davis for the best overall score
Fresh off a fire-and-brimstone speech by the NFL's most famous Deacon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visited a local bowling alley late Thursday morning. There, the Buccaneers' own Demon Deacon, perhaps feeding off the the guest speaker's infectious energy, tore up the lanes.
Originally meant to be the last of 14 'organized team activity' days – including a fast-paced workout in the rising Tampa heat – Thursday was instead a unique day of camaraderie for the Buccaneers. In the morning, Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones delivered a rousing, 30-minute address in the team meeting room, stressing unity and teamwork; later, Head Coach Jon Gruden called off practice and took his team to the lanes instead.
Borrowing one of his own tactics from the 2002 championship season, Gruden replaced a workout with a team-building exercise of another type, surprising his players with an afternoon of fun. He did the same thing on a May afternoon two years ago, the first in a series of schedule breaks that made it clear that he had his finger on the pulse of that team.
At the alley, 108 players, coaches and football staffers split into teams of four and dominated most of the lanes for two rounds of bowling. Scores were kept and the competition heated up as the more successful players kept tabs on the action across the lanes.
In the end, it was first-year wide receiver Fabian Davis who turned in the highest single-game score, a sizzling 230 during the second round. Davis, a 2003 free agent out of Wake Forest, wasn't new to keggling; during his time with the Demon Deacons, the receiving corps would get together every Wednesday night to hit the lanes.
The purpose of such exercises, then and now, is to bring together players in a setting outside of football and build unity through shared good times.
"This is good stuff, I like this," said Davis. "In college, I went bowling with the receiving group every Wednesday, just to make us closer. And we were always considered the closest group on the team. This kind of thing always brings guys together."
Quarterback Brad Johnson proved he could whip the rock as well as the pigskin, edging Davis for the best overall, two-game score. He was on a team with running back Jamel White, linebacker Jeff Gooch and assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, not necessarily his usual running buddies. There were dozens of unusual groupings, and that was part of the plan.
"This gives us what Jon wanted, bringing guys together who don't normally work together on a daily basis," said Running Backs Coach Art Valero, whose avowed goal was to break 100 in either game (he came through in the second game with a 125). "This allows us to come here and start to get that camaraderie that (Gruden) wants. I think it's outstanding from the standpoint of what it does emotionally. They've been working hard. Now we bring them all together for this and then next we'll go in and finish it all off."
The Bucs are done with their OTA days but have a mandatory, three-day mini-camp looming next week. After that, it's five weeks off before training camp. Replacing practice with bowling gave the Bucs both a little rest before mini-camp and a chance to focus on team concepts before a month doing individual things.
"You can see that by just how much fun everybody's having," said Valero. "This allows everybody to hang out, talk a little crap and get away from what they normally do."
Of course, these being athletes by trade, there was more than a little competition involved. Safety Jermaine Phillips, who tended to loft the ball well down the lane but still get decent spin, missed out on the bowling outing two years ago but was in good form on Thursday, with a 189 in the first game. That was the second-highest score among all bowlers in Game One, falling three pins shy of the 193 put up by assistant video director Pat Brazil.
"I'm enjoying myself. We're just coming together and competing, everyone having a good time," said Phillips. "I didn't get to participate in 2002 because the rookies were practicing. But we've got the rookies out here this time, and everybody's trying to put up the high score."
That's where Davis came in. He laid low in the first game with a 148, but he began to hammer the pocket in Game Two. A railroad in the eighth frame kept him from a clean game, but that was his only open frame en route to that 230, still well below his personal high of 279. Davis hadn't exactly made his college preparatory work on the lanes common knowledge before the event.
"I'm always the underdog," he said. "Everybody's always talking about bowling but I have to keep my mouth shut because I know I can do this a little bit."
The Bucs do have several other practiced bowlers on the team, including wide receiver Frank Murphy, considered one of the pregame favorites. Murphy started well enough with a 164 but faded to 116 in the second game when his power game failed him.
"I just try to come with the power and quickness," said Murphy with a laugh. "Like Deacon Jones said today when he spoke to us, you've got to be fast. He said he could cut the light off and be in bed before it goes off."
Murphy wasn't too concerned with his showing, as he understood the greater purpose of the event.
"This is going to make us a better team, because everybody is together," he said. "It's going to take a team to win this year, and this builds team. Plus, it's fun and you get to know one another and talk. I didn't really know these guys on my (bowling) team, but now I'm starting to know them and that's a smart idea by Coach Gruden and (General Manager) Bruce Allen."
Walking the 27 lanes employed by the Bucs gave one a look at a very wide variety of bowling styles. While Brazil and Davis used tight spins to hit the pocket regularly, a few bigger men like defensive end Reinard Wilson went for straight power, throwing frozen ropes down the middle of the lane. Linebacker Keith Burns, who put up a 196 in the second game, tended to take the scenic route, bellying the ball from inside to out and playing the right gutter before yanking it back to the pocket. Some, like Burns, brought their own balls; Davis used a house ball, as he always does.
The results were mixed, of course, with a few 70s balancing out the 190s. Here's a look at the best and worst of the Bucs' bowling outing: