In the first of many volunteer efforts the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookies will carry out this summer, the NFL newcomers visited pediatric patients at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa on Wednesday afternoon.
The assembly of 20 Buccaneers split into smaller groups upon arrival and visited patients throughout the building. Players spent the afternoon posing for pictures, signing autographs and handing out comforting teddy bears in conjunction with the Glazer Family Foundation's "Cheering You On!" program.
Room after room the same scene repeated, with the recovering children and their families thrilled to see the visitors. And for eight-year-old Avery Ayan, simply having company of any kind made a world of difference.
"Since nobody's (here), I really don't have anybody that much to talk to and I'm just laying in bed watching TV," said Ayan.
Although Ayan has family that visits her in the hospital, having the players take the time to see her Wednesday made a significant impact in her life. For once, she was able to focus on just being a kid.
"It makes me feel a little better," Ayan said about having the visitors. "It kind of makes me forget that I'm sick."
Quarterback Mike Glennon, the Buccaneers' third-round pick in April's NFL Draft, hoped the trip helped the patients, many of whom are facing problems that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
"You can see the kid's faces brighten up when you walk in the room," he said. "You don't really know what's going on or why, but obviously it's a tough time and even if we can make them feel better for five minutes, it's really successful."
Cornerback Johnthan Banks, a fellow 2013 draft pick, agreed, and it made him treasure his own life and professional career even more. "It's a great feeling to see these kids smile and have something to look forward to," said Banks. "They may never be able to play football. You've just got to give them hope."
One child in particular stood out to rookie defensive end William Gholston. When 10-year-old Celeste Otero told the rookies it was the best day of her life, Gholston couldn't bring himself to move on to the next room.
"I painted an elephant for her and I asked her to hold it for me, so the next time I see here, she can give me the elephant back," said Gholston. "So hopefully I get to see her again."
On a day in which players set out to lift the spirits of sick and injured children, it ended up being the children who left the most lasting impression.
"She really, really brightened my whole experience," said Gholston.
As the summer progresses, this year's rookie class will continue a team tradition of volunteering time through a variety of programs and efforts to help introduce the Buccaneers' youngest players to the Tampa Bay community and the charitable causes in the area. Wednesday's visit to St. Joseph's was a perfect way to kick off the program.