Though their NFL careers are still very young, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 rookies have already learned the importance of giving back to their community.
This week, while most of the team was taking a break from its series of offseason workouts, the newest Bucs found several ways to keep busy and make a difference at the same time.
On Tuesday, Tampa Bay's rookies crossed the street from One Buccaneer Place to visit the pediatric patients at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa. On Wednesday, the group gathered again for a slightly longer trip over the bay to take in a baseball game with some of St. Petersburg's most deserving students.
At St. Joseph's the two dozen rookies – made up of 2012 draft picks and undrafted free agents – split up between the hospital floors to make personal room visits and greet patients, hand out autographs, and distribute Buccaneers teddy bears to the area's youngest football fans. Mark Barron, Tampa Bay's first overall pick a month ago, may be new in town but he had no problem understanding how his new young friends were feeling.
"You have to think about how you would feel when you were a kid," Barron. "I would have been really excited and I feel like this is a great opportunity. Some of these kids are smiling from ear to ear."
To everyone in the hospital, seeing the players take time out of their day to visit the children was not only important but rewarding.
"It gives the kids something to look forward to," said St. Joseph's Child Life Department Supervisor Leah Frohnerath. "When we come around in the morning and tell the kids that we have a special visit from the Buccaneers players, they get excited that somebody would take the time to come and see them here."
The Buccaneer newcomers shared in the anticipation. Offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick, an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska, knew firsthand the impact that their visit could have. For Hardrick, the visit had personal significance.
"I have a younger brother who had sickle cell [anemia] when I was younger, so we were in and out of the hospital like every month," Hardrick said. "They brought the Memphis Grizzlies in, and he was real sick, but when he rolled over and saw them he just stood up, and felt a whole lot better that day - and I felt a lot better seeing him. It's something the doctors couldn't give to him; they gave him a little spirit.
"These kids will remember this for a lifetime"
Misty Moss, whose son Keegan is undergoing treatment at the hospital, couldn't have agreed more. "It was really a blessing," she said. "It was amazing to see them."
Added Frohnerath: "It is a signal to the families and the patients here that the Bucs care about the community," she said. "And the staff appreciate that the Bucs care."
On Wednesday, as the Tampa Bay Rays prepared to host the visiting Chicago White Sox for an afternoon contest in St. Petersburg, the Buccaneer rookies joined 18 students from Campbell Park Elementary School in heading over to Tropicana Field.
Once outside the stadium gates, the young Bucs paired up with their even younger buddies – many of whom were attending their first Major League Baseball game – and prepared for a fun day at the ballpark.
"I think for most if not all of these students, it's a dream come true," said Brandy Williams-Macon, the Campbell Park principal. "Many of them don't have the opportunity to attend a professional sport event and this is kind of a win-win; they have the opportunity to attend a Tampa Bay Rays game, but they are also attending with Buccaneers players. Football and baseball all in one, it's very exciting."
As a Title I public school in downtown St. Petersburg, nearly 90 percent of Campbell Park's student population receives free or reduced lunch. Given many of the students' socioeconomic backgrounds, opportunities to attend an outing like Wednesday's are few and far between.
The participating students were selected by their teachers for their positive performance and behavior in the classroom. After being seated not far from the Ray's bullpen the players and students quickly realized they shared a passion for more than just sports. Kids big and little wasted no time grabbing the attention of the first ice cream or cotton candy vendor who walked by.
"When I was younger we would always get ice cream and little hats and all that, and hot dogs," recalled Desmond Wynn, a rookie out of Rutgers. "This brings back memories, even getting the kids cotton candy brings back memories of getting cotton candy when I was younger. I love being with the kids, that's for sure."
But watching baseball and snacking on stadium fare wasn't all the young students had in store. After the fifth inning, the group visited the popular sting ray tank in centerfield, where the players and students had the chance to pet and feed the docile creatures.
"This is an awesome experience for me as well as these kids," said running back Doug Martin. "It's an opportunity that not every kid can have. The Buccaneers want to give these kids the opportunity to come out with us and have this lifetime experience, and they are superstars in the classroom, so they deserve it."
For cornerback Keith Tandy, the group's closing act was perhaps the most memorable of the day. At the game's seventh inning stretch, the players and students gathered in front of stadium cameras and led the crowd in an impressive rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, showcased on the stadium's scoreboard screen.
"The kids had a real good time with that, but I think some of the football players were more excited than the kids," said Tandy. "When we got on the camera on the big screen and sang*, *I think we actually had more fun than they did."
Just being included in the song, let alone the afternoon, was well worth it for fifth-grader Terrell Carroll.
"They were nice and cool and awesome," said Carroll. "It was good because the Bucs accepted me as their teammates, so it was fun to sing with them."