The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the middle of their 2011 training camp, which means they are working extra hard in their pursuit of another championship. On Thursday, they came in contact with another group of athletes who, collectively, have already displayed the heart of a champion.
In what has become one of the Buccaneers favorite training camp traditions, they got a visit last week from Special Olympics Florida. Dozens of Special Olympians watched their favorite NFL players practice before taking the field themselves to participate in a Gatorade Junior Training Camp.
The visiting athletes first fueled up with food and drinks at One Buccaneer Place before watching a private walk-through session on the practice fields behind the facility. After practice broke the players came over en masse to greet the Special Olympians, sign autographs, pose for pictures and even toss the football back and forth a few times.
The mission of Special Olympics Florida is to provide year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports to people with intellectual disabilities who wish to participate. Sessions such as the one Thursday at Buc headquarters gives the athletes repeated opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with others.
The visiting Olympians enjoyed the autograph session but were even more eager to take the field themselves. Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, safety Corey Lynch, punter Mike Koenen and General Manager Mark Dominik joined more than 70 athletes from Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Sarasota and Collier Counties on the practice field to take part in the drills that make up a Gatorade Junior Training Camp.
The Buccaneer players then led the athletes in a variety of football drills that tested all aspects of the game, including tackling, catching passes and even performing end zone dances. As it turns out, these drills may come in handy for the athletes as Special Olympics Florida recently added flag football to the program.
"It was added just last week," said Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Special Olympics Florida, Amie Dugan. "We will be adding Flag Football as the newest exhibition sport. If the crowd that comes to this event every year is an indication, I think it's going to be wildly popular. We hope that one day we'll come back with a Special Olympics flag football team and see if the Bucs want to take us on."
Dugan stressed how important it is to show people that Special Olympians are true athletes. She said the Buccaneers' involvement helps to reinforce that fact.
"For the Bucs players to come out here and interact with them as athletes and treat them and respect them as athletes it means the world to them and their families," she said. "It shows they give them a lot of respect and a lot of dignity, and that's the lesson they will learn long after throwing the football is over."
Buccaneers safety Cory Lynch, who participated last year as well, was happy to come out and see so many people working hard and having fun.
"I just love coming out here and helping kids out at any age, especially the Special Olympics group," he said. "They are dear to my heart and I just love throwing them the balls seeing them get some touchdown passes. And the celebrations at the end make me laugh!"
Lynch also recognized that the Olympians include many talented athletes who excel at dozens of different sports.
"These kids are out here having fun; they are just having a blast," he said. "I just love seeing them running through the bags, seeing how athletically gifted they are, so it's a lot of fun to be out here."
There certainly were a lot of smiles as various groups traveled from station to station, giving each other high-fives and getting instruction and support from the best players the NFL has to offer.
Dominik took on the role of head coach, offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and quarterback as he called out plays, gave instruction and helped athletes run routes and score touchdowns. Dominik was very enthusiastic and said he thought a few athletes looked ready to play high school or college football.
"The point of all this is that they have a great time," he said. "I like making them tune into the drill and really listen and try to and have fun with them. At the end of the day they are athletes and they are just having a good time like all athletes. I like to go out there and play with them to make sure it's a moment they remember because it's a moment I remember."
Mike Koenen, the team's recently signed punter, also joined in on the action, getting his first taste of the Buccaneers' commitment to the community. The smile on his face as he tossed footballs to the athletes said it all, and despite the heat he was more than happy to stay after practice and help cheer on fellow competitors.
"This is exactly what football is about," he said "It's about our fans, it's about the people who watch us, and it's about what the game of football does for everybody. For this group to come out and want to have a good time and to see the smiles on their faces, it's great. It touches you."
At the end of the field session, the whole group huddled at midfield, just as the Bucs do after each practice. Dominik led the Olympians in a cheer as they broke the huddle.
"It's such a thrill for our athletes," Amie Dugan said. "We have parents who say my son or my daughter looks forward to this all year every year. To get out here on a beautiful facility like this and get to interact with the players they watch on television and come to the games and cheer on is such a thrill for them. As you can clearly see by the volume of Bucs jerseys and shirts, there's no shortage of fans among our crowd here."
As the athletes left Dominik thanked them all and even got a few hugs. He understands how important these relationships are to the visiting athletes.
"Well I think the last few years having been out here with these guys, getting to know some of them, it's a lot of fun for me," he said. "They get so enthusiastic and so excited about coming out here and running through the drills and jumping on the bags and scoring different touchdowns. I just have a good time with it. It's unique every year because we all have a good time and just enjoy the moment."