Head Coach Jon Gruden had ample opportunity to show his appreciation for the men and women of the military after Friday's practice
As the Commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the Installation Commander of MacDill Air Force Base, Colonel Maggie Woodward has plenty of experience directing large groups of men.
It was a natural fit, then, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden turned his team over to Colonel Woodward on Friday afternoon. With a rousing "Win on Three" chant, Colonel Woodward brought to close one of the most unique and inspiring practices in team history.
You see, this practice was conducted not at Buccaneer team headquarters, or training camp or even Raymond James Stadium, but smack in the middle of one of the most important military outposts in the United States. As the home to Centcom, MacDill AFB plays a major role in the country's current efforts in the Middle East.
That makes the servicemen and women on the base one of the Buccaneers' most valued neighbors, and the two have joined forces many times in the past. This was the first time, however, that the team had held an actual practice on the base.
Having just returned from training camp on Thursday, and with the second preseason game looming on Saturday, the Bucs moved their traditional day-before-game walk-through to a large and well-maintained athletic field on the base. The visit allowed the Buccaneers to show their appreciation to the military and allowed the families on the base to get up close and personal with their favorite Tampa Bay players.
At least 1,100 servicemen and women and their families lined the track around the field as the Bucs arrived and launched immediately into their walk-through. More observers, particularly young children, continued to pour out of nearby buildings and over to the field as the practice continued. One young man, seven-year-old James DeShawn Lyons, was even pulled off the sideline and brought right into the huddle by Gruden, who had noticed the Buc helmet the boy was wearing. That helmet was covered with autographs within minutes, and DeShawn's face was alight with a permanent smile.
As he gathered his players around him at the end of the walk-through, Gruden introduced Colonel Woodward and shared his team's appreciation for the sacrifices made by the nation's military men and women.
"We wanted to thank you sincerely for letting us come on the base here and sharing this with us," said Gruden. "It's a great experience for me and for us. For your courage and all the things you do for us, we can't thank you enough."
Gruden presented Colonel Woodward with an autographed ball, and she reciprocated with an amazing keepsake. On behalf of the base, Colonel Woodward gave the team a flag that had been flown during a mission in Iraq on Christmas Eve, a mission that supported troops who were battling insurgents. The flag was mounted within a plaque along with a letter of authenticity.
"We wanted to make sure you had this to show you our appreciation for what you do, the great role models you are by being here today," she said. "You guys have no idea what a great morale booster this is. Just the fact that you think enough about us to do this today means an awful lot to our guys both here and overseas right now.
"You guys recognize the same thing we do: It's teamwork that makes us the greatest air force in the world, and it makes you guys the greatest football team in the world."
After Colonel Woodward led the break, the players broke off into the crowd, which had gathered on the field in great clumps, many looking for autographs from on a wide variety of memorabilia. The Bucs stayed long after the end of the workout to sign autographs and mingle, only sped up at the end by lightning flashing out of a looming storm.
Punter Josh Bidwell added words of thanks to every autograph.
"You hope the team would definitely encouraged by coming out here and seeing how appreciative they are of us playing a silly game," he said. "It's something that really brightens their spirits. But for me it's just an honor to be down here, talking to the troops and trying to help them out. I'm so proud of what they're doing for us, the service they provide, the freedom they provide. It may be a bit cliché to hear that, but they seem to really appreciate us saying that straight to them."
Many of the players headed over to the sideline to grab huge handfuls of shirts, hats and team yearbooks that had been brought along as further tokens of appreciation. Linebacker Wesly Mallard worked the crowd, handing out shirts and hats and remembering his own childhood as the son of a career Army man.
"I think this is very important," said Mallard. "People recognize the military but you don't see them every day. A lot of time you're not around army bases and you don't see this kind of stuff, so this is a great thing for us to come out here and be able to do this for the kids and families who live out here. You don't see soldiers every day in the community. But to have a base right here, it's a good thing to come out and support these men and women. I know they're supporting us and we have to support them. It's just a small thank you."
As a rookie, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is new to the Bay area community. He was rather impressed with the base, particularly its size.
"It's an honor to come out here and see where they're working and experience something like this," said Gradkowski. "It's a great experience to see their facility and see how much land they have. I was really surprised when we pulled in how much land there is back here. That's awesome. This is what they love to do and it's awesome to see where they go to work every day.
"I feel safer knowing this is what they do to protect us, seeing how many people work here and how much property they have. It's all for their country."
In the past, the Bucs have had visitors from the base at their practices at One Buccaneer Place, which allowed the team small opportunities to pass on their appreciation, but it was a different experience actually stepping onto the military property and getting a glimpse of the important work that is conducted there. In fact, just a few hours before the Bucs arrived, two KC-135 aircraft and 70-80 people returned to the base from a deployment supporting the war.
"These are the real heroes, let's be honest," said Gruden. "What's going on in the world right now is reality. We got a chance to mingle with as many of them as we can, just to share our football with them and give them a little break. Hopefully it helps them out and gives them something to be excited about. We are their biggest fans. I can say that for sure.
"It puts things into proper perspective. These are people who are giving their lives and giving their all for all of us. They're different ages, different ethnic groups, different genders, but they're all together and this is one heck of a great team right here."