Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Virtual Connections on Veterans Day

Buccaneer players squared off in a heated series of online video game duels against U.S. soldiers stationed overseas on Tuesday morning, all as part of the “Pro vs. GI Joe” initiative

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A Madden star, Bucs TE Alex Smith had a toughter time when war games were in the console and the opponent was a real soldier

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Cato June crept through the darkened streets, rifle at his side, seeking out the enemy soldiers littering the small town.

As June peered around the corner of a brick building, a smattering of bullets whizzed past his head. One of them found its target, leaving June lifeless on the dusty street corner as everything faded to black.

This wasn't a real-life battle zone, of course – June was seated safely on a reclining chair inside the Bucs' spacious team meeting room playing "Call of Duty 4" on an Xbox 360 – and it didn't seem to bother the linebacker that he'd been defeated.

That's because the opponent who cut him down in the virtual world was slightly more experienced as a soldier than June was – he was, in fact, an actual member of the United States military.

June was on hand Tuesday morning – Veteran's Day, to be precise – squaring off against a group of U.S. service members in some online gaming as part of a Pro vs. GI Joe event.

Held inside the state-of-the-art amphitheater in which the Buccaneers meet every week, complete with its giant projector screen and booming surround-sound system, June, tight end Alex Smith and cornerback Phillip Buchanon competed online against about 20 soldiers serving in four different locations overseas – Kuwait, Germany, Japan and Dubai.

A split-screen setup on the large wall at the front of the room featured the gaming action on one side and a live web cam feed of the soldiers furiously mashing game controller buttons on the other. Furthermore, web cam stations were set up in other areas of the room that allowed more than 40 family members of these soldiers to chat over the Internet with their deployed loved ones.

"Pro vs. GI Joe is a non-profit organization," said Addie Zinone, the founder and overseas coordinator for the program. "What we do is set up these real-time video game competitions between professional athletes here in the states and troops stationed all over the world. We also hook them up via web cam and invite their family members to the event here stateside. So we're not only connecting the pro and the GI Joe, we're also reuniting family members separated by military deployments."

Zinone raffled off copies of video games to the family members in attendance, some of whom had been flown in from as far away as Iowa, Missouri and Virginia, and said the event was a great opportunity for everyone involved – players, soldiers and families alike.

"What you see going on here today is a worldwide Pro vs. GI Joe video game competition with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cato June and the other Bucs are brave enough to take on the GI Joes at their own game, but it's really great because it gives these troops all over the world the opportunity to go head-to-head against a professional athlete, someone they admire on the field, but also they can take away bragging rights and kick their butts a little bit and have those bragging rights forever.

"In addition to that, they also get to see their family members. We've gone to great lengths to get their family members here so we can reunite them. It's just nice that the Bucs organization has really embraced this idea. We hope that the pros as well as the GI Joes walk away having a fantastic time."

That was certainly the case as the Bucs in attendance fought valiantly to win their virtual war games. Despite their efforts, it was the soldiers who seemed to have the upper hand in the combat simulation game Call of Duty.

"They were pretty good," June said with a laugh. "They had the little side communication thing going on. It was hard to jump in. They had the specific words and code words and everything, but I jumped in and I think my team did pretty good."

The Bucs turned the tables once a copy of Madden 09 was popped into the game console. Smith, a talented Madden player with consecutive Madden Bowl trophies to prove it, played the first game of virtual football and squeaked out a 7-0 victory, followed by another narrow win for Buchanon.

The soldiers and players enjoyed "taking each other on in their own games," as Zinone put it, but as fun as the video game competition was, the true highlight of the day was the chance for the military families to spend a few minutes video-conferencing with their loved ones overseas.

Susan Balbontin of Tampa, the mother of Corporal Joshua Balbontin, a 19-year-old Marine currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, was delighted to see her son's face, even if it was only on a video screen.

"We talk to him every couple of days, but this is the first time I've actually seen him for a while," Balbontin said. "It was great, because you want to make sure he's doing alright. It was exciting.

"I really appreciate the Buccaneers doing it. For him to be able to play them, that's a really big thing. He's a big Buccaneers fan and a big video game fan. It's in the middle of the night [in Japan], so he's staying up all night for this."

Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips was in the building on his Tuesday off day to get some treatment for his fractured forearm, but stopped by to take part in the event. Phillips even sat down in front of a monitor and donned a headset to personally chat with a handful of the soldiers in Okinawa.

"I just wanted to show my appreciation," Phillips said. "The first thing I told them was, 'I appreciate you doing what you do so we can do what we do over here.' We take each day for granted. If they weren't over there doing what they're doing and protecting our country, then we wouldn't have all this freedom that we have today. I just wanted to say thank you and let them know that they're appreciated and that we're going to continue to go out here and play hard and try to honor them that way by winning on Sundays."

Richard Weidner of Port St. Lucie, the father of Lance Corporal Jeff Weidner, a 19-year-old Marine also stationed in Okinawa, was excited to speak to his son and impressed with the Buccaneers' support for the military.

"It was good," Weidner said. "We definitely miss him. That's our son and we miss him every day. It feels good to see him. He looks good and this program here is bringing a lot of joy to a lot of young men. It's a great thing that they're doing.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal and I think it's great for these guys. The athletes giving their time out of their busy schedules to come down here and do this for these soldiers, it's a good thing."

Despite Weidner's praise, Smith said the event was a simple – and fun – gesture that he and his teammates were honored to be a part of.

"It's the least I could do," said Smith. "It's just a way to show our appreciation for what they're doing overseas and something as simple as playing video games with them goes a long way. Hopefully they enjoyed it."

Added June: "It's Veteran's Day. It's a time to pay tribute to the guys that our protecting this country. For them, it's a time to get off and have a little fun with us. There's really nothing you can say about that – it's a great thing for the families and for the soldiers."

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