Bucs K Martin Gramatica displayed his skills Sunday with two goals in regulation and another during the shootout
It's hard to say who the biggest star on the University of South Florida soccer field was on Sunday afternoon.
There were certainly plenty of choices, as athletes and celebrities from Tampa and beyond competed in a star-studded soccer game, the crowning event of the Gramatica Family Foundation's Superstar Soccer Weekend.
In the soccer world, for instance, it doesn't get much bigger than Carlos Valderrama, the famously-coiffed legend who used to play for the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Valderrama ran the field Sunday with one of the NFL's most recognizable players, DT Warren Sapp, as well as Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Shelton Quarles, USF football Head Coach Jim Leavitt, Miami Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare and many others.
And there was, of course, Martin Gramatica, one of the events organizers and, as it turns out, the star of the game. Gramatica played for the Blue team, which eventually lost in a shootout, 9-8, to the Red team. The Buccaneers kicker did his part with two goals during regulation and a humorously successful kick during the shootout. Before approaching his free kick, Gramatica told the Red keeper, WQYK's Mike Pepper, to 'relax;' the Buc kicker then faked a hard shot to the corner and popped a changeup right over the diving Pepper.
However, the real star of the game, and the weekend as a whole, was the entire Gramatica family. The clan worked tirelessly to organize and run the inaugural Superstar Soccer Weekend, all to raise money for the Gramatica Family Foundation. The Foundation will use the funds raised over the weekend to support a variety of youth programs in the Bay area.
The celebrity game was the capper to a busy weekend. On Saturday, hundreds of young players competed in a 3v3 Youth Soccer Tournament, an all-day event that ran concurrently with the Coca-Cola Fan Fest on the USF intramural fields. That evening, the three-hour 'Stars & Cigars' Celebrity Benefit allowed attendees to mingle with celebrities and participate in a silent auction.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, the game drew hundreds of fans, many of them obviously local youth soccer players, to the USF soccer stadium. They were there to see, in addition to the stars listed above, NFL kickers Steve Christie, Joe Nedney and Mike Hollis, NFL punters Scott Player, Chris Hanson and David Leaverton and four members of the Boca Juniors soccer team from Buenos Aires, Argentina – Hugo Alvarez, Sergio Coronel, Lucas D'Alegre and Nicolas Falczuk.
Martin and his brother, Bill, another NFL kicker, were the events main organizers, but they had help from their entire family. The youngest Gramatica brother, USF placekicker Santiago Gramatica, participated in the game, as did the clan's father, William Gramatica. The matriarch, Laura Gramatica, helped behind the scenes and cheered her men on during the game. At each event during the weekend, the Gramaticas were thrilled with the turnout, and they now hope to make the Superstar Soccer Weekend and annual event.
"It's great," said Martin. "We didn't expect this many fans, and we were happy. I hope it grows. We've got to thank all the celebrities that came out. It's not like a golf tournament – there's a little bit of risk involved. But everybody played fair, played fine.
"I want to thank all the fans that came out and all the guys that played. It was very exciting. I thought it went great. It went so well that we're hoping to do another one, for sure."
Though Martin played most of the game and displayed the skills that made him a standout youth player in Argentina, the crowd seemed most interested in the work of Sapp, an unrestricted free agent who played the last nine seasons with the Buccaneers. Though the 300-pound defensive tackle didn't fit the prototype of a soccer player, he did display some skills, successfully executing a chest stop, a header and a pass or two...and drawing enormous applause each time.
Afterward, Sapp was pleased with his efforts – he played most of the first half, alternating between forward and defenseman – but certain he had room to improve.
"I didn't follow the advice given to me earlier in the day," said Sapp with a laugh. "They told me to let the ball do all the work."
Of course, simply being on hand was more important for Sapp than scoring a goal. He was more than happy to lend a hand to his teammate of the last five years.
"Martin Gramatica...I know everything behind him is always a winner," said Sapp.
Gramatica's team went down 2-0 early, with ESPN's Rob Stone scoring the game's first goal for the Red team. Santiago and Martin tied it with back-to-back goals within a minute late in the first half. In the closing minutes of the second half, Santiago and Martin again scored successive goals, putting the Blue team up 6-5. However, Stone scored again in the second half and the Red team came back to tie the game and win it in the shootout.
Barber, like Sapp, failed to record a goal but hustled hard throughout the game and did manage a few shots on goal. Not bad for an athlete who hadn't played soccer in 20 years, by his own estimate.
"Hey, there's a ball involved, so I can do it," said Barber, though he too admitted to having a lot to learn. "I don't know how to handle the ball. I could run all day long, I just don't know how to dribble."
The same thing that drew Sapp to the pitch prompted Barber to get involved and, eventually, made the whole weekend a success: respect for the community-minded Gramatica family.
"These guys, Martin and the whole family, they have a pretty big influence because of who they are," said Barber. "They've got a big opportunity to give back and I'm just helping them do what they do best."