During it's week-long stretch of community outreach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rookie Club spent a lot of time providing local youth with friendship and mentoring. The week began and ended, however with a pair of opportunities for those newest Buccaneers to show their support and respect for members of the military.
Last Thursday, the rookie class traveled to James A Haley Veterans' Hospital, visiting dozens of patients in the hospital's Spinal Cord Injury Center, where U.S. servicemen and women are recovering from injury and illness. The players hosted an ice cream social at the hospital, taking time to share personal stories, sign autographs, and snap pictures with the local heroes.
"The fact that they would think of them and come out is extremely special," said Carrie Cherry, mother of one of the hospital's patients. "As a mom, after everything [my son has] been through, this may not seem like a big thing to somebody else, but for him and these guys, it's awesome. It's a pleasure that they will never forget, and I hope it will be a blessing to the players and whoever is helping with all of this, because it has a ripple effect."
The lessons learned during the visit translated to the players' own experiences both on and off the football field.
"In the military, you've got to [come together as] one," said cornerback Johnthan Banks. "Our whole team can come here and sit down, talk to these guys and see what it takes to be one as a whole, as a unit and try to get things working like the military does."
After spending many of the intervening days on outings with local youth groups, the Buccaneer rookies traveled to MacDill Air Force Base on Wednesday, June 20 to connect with current members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The first stop on base included a tutorial with one of MacDill's military working dogs. The officers showed off a few commands and displayed the dog's ability to disarm and contain potential attackers. One "lucky" player was then given the opportunity to try to outrun the dog.
That honor fell to running back Matt Brown, a standout return man from Temple. Despite the speed and quickness he displays on the practice field, Brown was no match for the canine. Given a lengthy head start, and protected by a full body suit and helmet, Brown was chased down mere seconds after sprinting away from the dog. The scene brought a hearty laugh from his teammates, who were told stories of dogs currently serving overseas and the important role they play in U.S. military operations around the globe.
The team also toured the Explosive Ordinance Disposal building, where the rookies had a chance to handle and operate – albeit in a safe setting – the military tools used to dispose of threatening bombs.
"We looked at the pictures on the wall of cars blowing up," said defensive end Steven Means. "That's when it kind of hit home that this is a real serious job."
At the conclusion of the visit, there was little doubt that the experience helped put the rookies' daily struggles into perspective. These players may be competing for a chance to fulfill their childhood dreams of playing in the NFL, but that opportunity – and many others afforded to Americans – shouldn't be taken for granted.
"There's a lot of respect that we do need to pay, that sometimes isn't paid," said defensive end William Gholston.
Added Means: "We love these guys and thank them for everything that they do for us, allowing us to go out there and play football and do what we love. We just want to help and support them in any way that we can."