With hometown hero Leonard Johnson on hand, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fulfilled a promise made nine months ago by officially opening Tampa Bay Buccaneers Field Wednesday afternoon in the city of Clearwater.
In September 2012, Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer, quarterback Josh Freeman and Johnson had visited the North Greenwood neighborhood in Clearwater to make the exciting announcement that the Buccaneers, in association with the NFL Grassroots program, would create a top-quality football field for local youth.
On Wednesday, that trio of Buccaneer representatives returned to North Greenwood and was joined on stage by offensive linemen Ted Larsen, Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah as well as Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, the nonprofit organization Clearwater for Youth, Inc. and cheerleader Tamiyah Shinn, a representative of the Greenwood Panthers football team. The ribbon-cutting ceremony that followed was a celebration of the $100,000 grant from the Buccaneers and the NFL's Grassroots Program that made the field project possible.
The Grassroots Program is a partnership between the NFL Youth Football Fund and Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the nation's leading community development support corporation. Over the last 15 years, that partnership has resulted in the construction or renovation of multiple football fields across the United States. Locally, the nonprofit organization Clearwater for Youth, Inc. helped develop Tampa Bay Buccaneers Field, which has a grass surface and also now includes new fencing and lighting.
High spirits fended off a threat of rain showers throughout the event on Wednesday, as attendees spoke about the opportunity to help a community in need.
"On what was simply a grass lot on that September afternoon, a community was embracing the prospect of something better for its youngest generation," said Glazer, addressing the crowd during the ceremony. "Less than a year later, that dream has become a reality, as we proudly stand here to unveil Tampa Bay Buccaneers Field to the children of Clearwater."
Glazer knows that Tampa Bay Buccaneers Field is more than just new grass and fencing, understanding the significance of sports for many children during their development into adulthood.
"As the players on this stage can attest, athletic competition not only teaches us a lot about ourselves, but the world around us," Glazer commented. "Many of the athletes here are just beginning to learn the importance of strong practice habits, sportsmanship and teamwork, but as you grow older you will realize the significance of these values in everyday life."
Following the remarks and ceremonial ribbon cutting, the Buccaneer players put the new field to use as they led children through running, passing and tackling drills. Johnson, who still lives in the North Greenwood community where he first played organized football with the Panthers, couldn't stop smiling as he watched his youngest neighbors enjoying the drills.
"This donation that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave to the community of Clearwater is just mind-blowing," Johnson said. "It gives them something to look forward to. It makes me proud to wear a Buccaneers jersey. I know a lot of teams are involved in their communities, but to actually see it done in my community, it's mind-blowing. You always hear about it, but it never really affects you until it's done to you."
Freeman was eager to see the finished product in Clearwater after attending the groundbreaking ceremony last September.
"You come out here and you see how much it means to these kids," he said as he watched the boys and girls participate in the drills. "You can see it in [Johnson's] face, see it in his eyes just how excited he is about seeing the opportunity given to these young people. Part of the Buccaneers is the community. They make us who we are. It's a huge honor to be out here."
As Freeman watched the kids learn techniques from the pros, he understood the significance of having a support system from such a recognizable group of players.
"If a kid never believes he's going to make it to the NFL or going to be an NFL player, then he doesn't really have a chance," Freeman said. "But it starts with believing in yourself and a desire to work to get there. These kids definitely have it. "