Kiara's mother couldn't believe her eyes.
As Tasha sat alongside her daughter's bed at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, a large man in a red Santa Claus hat flashed across the doorway. *My mind is playing tricks on me, *she thought.
Then she saw another figure in a red hat. And another.
By the time Tasha's eyes had focused, the group in red had descended upon her daughter's room. None were the actual St. Nick, but Kiara still had a big reason to smile. Without warning, her room had filled with several jersey-clad Tampa Bay Buccaneer players, taking time off on Tuesday to spread some holiday cheer.
"I was surprised to see them in here," the 15-year-old said. "They were telling me Happy Holidays and to get better. It lightens up the atmosphere. Just tell them to keep coming in for the rest of the kids."
No need. That was the plan all along.
This Tuesday, 23 rookies and five Buccaneers cheerleaders combined to make a pair of stops in St. Petersburg for the team's final Rookie Club event of the season, visiting the children's hospital and Westminster Palms Retirement Home to greet fans young and old.
And there was no shortage of spirit to go around. The Buccaneers group consisted of safety Larry Asante, tackle Will Barker, wide receiver Arrelious Benn, running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe, guard Brandon Carter, defensive end Brandon Gilbeaux, tackle Derek Hardman, defensive end George Johnson, center Ted Larsen, cornerback Myron Lewis, fullback Erik Lorig, center John Malecki, punter Robert Malone, tight end Nathan Overbay, wide receiver Preston Parker, defensive tackle Brian Price, fullback Rendrick Taylor, linebacker Dekoda Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams, defensive end E.J. Wilson, defensive tackle Al Woods and defensive end Doug Worthington. The rookies split into three groups to visit patients throughout the hospital, where they handed out autographed pennants, posed for pictures, shared stories and then parted with some holiday wishes as the families in each room expressed their thanks and appreciation.
"I just think that's incredible that they would do this on their day off," said Tasha. "I just thought it was great, they were so warm and friendly."
"Our kids look forward to this every year," said Stephanie Hall, director, telethon/annual giving for the All Children's Hospital Foundation. "Being in the hospital during the holiday season is tough for our families, and for the players to spend time and come in really bring smiles to their faces. It really makes the holiday great for our families."
The youngest Buccaneers also came away from the event with a sense of accomplishment after helping lift the spirits of some of their youngest fans.
"You see the little kids and older people in some bad situations out there and to know that you can brighten their day by just showing up makes you feel good," said Blount. "It puts smiles on their faces just because they know who you are, and you're there visiting and talking to them."
That was just the first stop of the day. The rookies then piled into a bus and headed up the road to Westminster Palms Retirement Home. While their involvement at the hospital consisted mostly of smiling, chatting, and posing for pictures, their event at the retirement home was a bit more active.
The highlight: the entire group of rookies assembling at the front of a room packed with residents, donning their Santa hats and performing a series of Christmas carols.
With the help of the cheerleaders, the rookies sang a number of holiday favorites, including "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Let it Snow," "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Holly Jolly Christmas," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." While it took a minute for the players to get over their collective stage fright, the group ended up putting on a rousing performance that had audience members singing along.
"It's a day of cheer," said Helen Kantner, a resident at Westminster Palms.* *"We really look forward to it because they bring some sparkle in from the outside world and it's just really great to have people of all ages come in and see us."
While the group's performance entertained all in attendance, their singing abilities remained a bit suspect.
"They did great; they don't sing well, but we all know that," added Kantner. "It's the cheer and sparkle on their faces and the smiles that really mean a lot."
Watson couldn't help but agree with her assessment.
"From a scale of one to ten, that was probably a point-five," said the rookie linebacker. "That's something we really need to work on. We can't lose our day job, I'll put it like that."
Although their voices may have needed a little fine-tuning, the fact that they sang together made it more than worth the effort.
"It was awesome, these guys are funny," said Blount. "They make me laugh, so it's always worth hanging out with these guys, inside and outside of work, community service or whatever. Just being around these guys is fun."
After they were done singing, the Bucs again spent some time signing autographs, chatting and posing for pictures, wrapping up a full day of uplifting the spirits of members of the Tampa Bay community of all ages.
As Watson prepared to head home, he reflected on the efforts he and the rookies put forth on their Tuesday in the community, another sign of the energy and maturity the young Bucs possess.
"I think it's very important," said Watson. "I think everyone wants to feel love and be a part of a family or something like that, just to feel that love. For us to do that and go around, not only with the kids but with the retirement home, I think that's something special."