When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Gerald McCoy with the third pick in the 2010 NFL draft, football fans throughout Central Florida were thrilled by reports of the defensive tackle's strength, quickness and relentless style of play.
It looks like the kids of Central Florida are going to enjoy McCoy's arrival, too. In fact, the Buccaneers' entire class of 2010 made a big impression on Central Florida youth late last week, thanks to the first two outings by this year's Rookie Club.
Part of that aforementioned scouting report on McCoy: At 6-4 and nearly 300 pounds, McCoy is not easily restrained when pursuing a target. The creators of Universal Orlando's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster certainly found that to be true. Their ride's restraints worked, of course, but they also almost kept the exuberant 22-year-old from enjoying the park's newest attraction.
On Friday, McCoy joined wide receiver Arrelious Benn, punter Brent Bowden, safety Cody Grimm, cornerback Myron Lewis, defensive end Erik Lorig, defensive tackle Brian Price, linebacker Dekoda Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams and 20 children from the Universal Orlando Foundation Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida for a day of rides and attractions at Universal Orlando.
After an unsuccessful first attempt at securing himself into the ride's moderately-sized seat, at which point he was asked to proceed to the exit, the defensive tackle crept back onto the entrance platform. With the smiling faces of local youth beckoning his company, McCoy refused to be denied, managing to safely secure himself on board the coaster on his next attempt before enjoying the gravity-defying ride with his new friends from Orlando.
The annual Rookie Club program seeks to connect the Bucs' newest additions with the local community, and last week was a rousing start. Just a day before the trip to Orlando, 24 rookies joined more than 50 teenagers from Eckerd Youth Alternatives [EYA] and Hillsborough Kids, Inc. for an afternoon of pin-chasing and pizza at a nearby bowling alley.
Every year, the Buccaneers' Rookie Club pairs the team's newest members with local youth that could use a little guidance and friendship. As is always the case, the 2010 Rookie Club members have found the association to be richly rewarding.
"I love it, because this is what I want to do - I want to work with kids when I get older," said McCoy. "I think it's because my parents did stuff like this so it rubbed off on me. It does something for the kids and shows them that we're just regular guys and we make the most out of playing football."
EYA, a nationwide youth services organization, helps at-risk children and their families through academic counseling, behavior management and life skills training. The nonprofit organization places teens in caring environments where they learn how to redirect their behavior, take responsibility for their choices and internalize the skills to become productive, successful citizens.
Hillsborough Kids provides similar assistance, overseeing the care of approximately 2,800 children and teens in Hillsborough County who suffer from abuse or neglect. Foster parent/adoption care and recruitment, child abuse prevention and family crisis intervention are just some of the important ways the organizations supports Tampa's neediest children.
The bowling alley provided just the right atmosphere for children young and old to relax and have fun on Thursday, as laughter and cheers resonated throughout the lanes and players and youth intermingled easily.
"The kids don't normally see a lot of positive influences in their life, so this is definitely an opportunity to step away for their daily lives in their homes and just interact with other kids, friends and adults," said Nick Reschke of Camelot Community Care, an affiliate agency of Hillsborough Kids. "Being out here with the Bucs players who are hopefully going to be their future role models, it's a great opportunity for the kids to interact with them and hopefully have fun."
Buccaneer rookies will participate in similar events throughout their first year with the team. Thursday's trip to the lanes was a great place to start.
"My mom always told me if you fall down, get right back up - and that's what I want to tell these kids," said Williams. "I can definitely relate; coming from a bad neighborhood, I didn't have the right coaches so I can relate. I think if you have someone to show you the way, it's always better. When you have to pick your own way, you might pick the wrong direction, so if you have some people that have been there and know the situation, it helps."
On Saturday the rookie class extended that hand one further, as the nine 2010 draft picks traveled to Orlando to join local youth for a day of theme park festivities.
The Bucs and kids exchanged brief introductions before descending upon the plethora of amusements and attractions before them. The group enjoyed roller coaster rides, a 4-D cartoon experience, an interactive alien battle and even the chance to act in a disaster-themed movie production with their new friends.
"I liked the rollercoaster ride, it was a great experience," said Jarius, who was participating through the Boys & Girls Club. "I had a lot of fun when the players showed up and [we were] just hanging around with them. I will never forget this day, I'm going to go home and write on my refrigerator and everything. I will never forget this."
After only a short while, it was evident that the children were not the only ones feeling the bond within the group.
"As the day went on you saw everyone loosen up," said McCoy. "Everyone said, 'Look, we're just normal people and let's just have some fun.' The kids were talking to us like they've known us for years, so that was a lot of fun."
McCoy's observation was apparent to others as well.
"I think they were kind of awestruck at the beginning when the players first showed up, but what I liked the most was how the players interacted with [the kids] and made them feel comfortable," said Bryan Cobaris, Program Director for the Universal Orlando Foundation Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida. "That showed them that once you reach a certain level, that doesn't change the type of person that you are. It shows them that you can still be positive at a high level, and I like that."
Added 17-year-old Sharice: "The fact that they actually took time to be with us was awesome."
Initiated in 2001, the Buccaneers' Rookie Club has evolved into one of the most influential and community-minded programs in the NFL. Judging from Thursday and Friday's kickoff events, this year looks to be no different.
"I have never been to a community event like this," said McCoy. "Universal Studios is one of the best places that you can go to in the world, and to be able to help the kids out, have fun with them and be at Universal - it doesn't get much better than that."