The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were practicing near the north end zone of Field #3 on Thursday morning when another team passed by just a few yards away, on its way to the other side of the backyard at One Buc Place. The Bucs' training camp practice was due to end in a few minutes, but the organized collection of blocking pads, cones and training ladders on Field #1 suggested there was still plenty of football to be played.
Yes, there was training camp on top of training camp at Buc headquarters on Thursday, and taking the baton from the likes of Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount was another group of competitors as welcome at One Buc Place as any first-round draft choice. It was the continuation of one of the most rewarding annual traditions for the Buccaneers: a visit from the athletes of Special Olympics Florida.
More than 60 Special Olympians came out to the Buccaneers' training camp on Thursday, taking part in an event that Glenn Fite, the organization's Hillsborough County coordinator, calls "a highlight event" of the year for the assembled athletes.
It's a highlight for many Buccaneers, as well, including a large group of players who moved directly from their own practice to the Special Olympics camp, and General Manager Mark Dominik, who has played an active role in the annual visit for the last four years.
"It's a tradition that we've started that's gotten better and better every year and more and more fun for the Special Olympic athletes," said Dominik. "Our players and our staff look forward to this day every year. It's a chance to hang out and have fun after practice and play some athletics with some other athletes."
Special Olympics Florida is a local chapter of the national organization committed to empowering people with intellectual disabilities through sports training and competition. Opportunities such as the one on Thursday at Bucs training camp help Special Olympians develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share their skills with friends, family members and the community.
"These guys are definitely athletes just like us," said rookie running back Doug Martin, one of the Buccaneer players to take part in the post-practice camp. "They're definitely showing it out here and it's awesome to see. It's an awesome experience."
Other Bucs who joined in the fun along with Martin and the Special Olympics visitors included Blount, Williams, Connor Barth Andrew Economos, Preston Parker, Sammie Stroughter, Mike Williams, Tiquan Underwood, Anthony Gaitor, Leonard Johnson, Keith Tandy, Tramain Thomas and Michael Koenen, all of whom appeared to be having more fun than the guests.
"It feels good to be out here with these kids," said Martin. "You can hear them and they're really excited to be out here, and we're excited to be out here for them."
The visiting athletes threw passes, ran through training ladders, muscled their way past blocking pads and generally had a great time with the sort of drills that Buccaneer players use to hone their own skills. Dominik and the Buc players helped run the drills and offered non-stop encouragement to the athletes.
For athletes like Lonnie Coston, who is 90 percent blind and competes in swimming, basketball and soccer in the Special Olympics, getting the chance to come out and interact with his favorite team offered an unmatched opportunity.
"I'm real excited," said Coston. "Go Bucs!"
His feelings were shared by fellow athlete Javares Stevenson, who described the visit as "my lucky day."
Some of the athletes parents were also able to come along on the trip and witness the fun. Katrina and Monte Belote were able to watch their son Jacob, who is confined to a chair, enjoy his interaction with the Buccaneer players.
"This shows that the organization cares," said Katrina Belote. "It cares about the community and our kids with special needs. Sometimes we get left out; our kids get left out, too. It gives them the opportunity to be like a regular kid and meet some of their idols."
Jacob's father could tell his son was having a wonderful time.
"Since he's nonverbal, he can't tell you," said Monte Belote. "But he does from his smile."