Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris was inspired by how hardy Bucs fans were on a rainy Friday night
At some point this season – perhaps as early as this Sunday if local weather reports are to be believed – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to deal with inclement weather on game day. On Friday night, they got a lesson on how to handle such situations from a surprising source – their own fans.
The Buccaneers annual Official 2009 Season Kickoff Party Presented by Miller Lite took place Friday at the Channelside Bay Plaza. As excited as Tampa Bay players and their fans were to spend a night celebrating the beginning of the 2009 campaign together, Mother Nature wasn't in a cooperative mood.
Wet weather covered most of the Tampa area on Friday night, and at Channelside the rain alternated between light and heavy but never completely abated. No matter; Buccaneer fans were undeterred, showing up by the hundreds to give their favorite team a boost less than two days before the 2009 season opener.
Head Coach Raheem Morris was joined by General Manager Mark Dominik, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, team mascot Captain Fear and a star-studded group of players for a night that began with flashes of lightning but ended with thunderous cheers. After welcoming the crowd alongside emcee T.J. Rives, Morris led the crowd in a round of call-and-response cheers and then thanked them profusely for their support. He was impressed by their good cheer even on a soggy night.
"This is just something to deal with, like something we might have to work through on game day," said Morris. "We don't worry about adversity and neither do these people. This is just a little adversity in the rain and we're loving it. Our fans didn't care; they came out here to support all our players. We're here, the players are here, the cheerleaders are here…we're having a great time tonight."
A particularly hard flash of rain pushed the start of the event back by about a half-hour, but it didn't drive away the crowd, nor the 11 high-profile players who came out for the event: wide receiver Michael Clayton, quarterback Josh Freeman, running back Earnest Graham, linebacker Geno Hayes, safety Sabby Piscitelli, defensive end Ryan Sims, wide receiver Maurice Stovall, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, running back Derrick Ward, defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson and running back Cadillac Williams.
The players came out in groups of three and four, each to raucous applause. Rives let each player speak to the crowd and all expressed their appreciation for the evening's amazing display of support.
"We've got the best fans in the world to come out here in all this rain," said Graham. "It's typical of Tampa Bay fans."
Added Williams: " It's raining, there's lightning and we've still got all these fans coming out here to support us. It's going to be big this year. I love being a Buc."
Williams has been a frequent attendee at the annual kickoff parties, but this year's event may have been especially uplifting for him given his encouraging return from a second major knee injury. Williams may have drawn the loudest cheer from the crowd upon his introduction, and he clearly appreciated the crowd's affection, as well as their excitement over the upcoming season and his potential role in it.
"Man, I feel great, and even better to come out here and see these fans support us like this," said Williams. "This is big."
Clayton is also a veteran of many Kickoff Parties, and he was something of a co-emcee for Rives on Friday night, taking the microphone during his time on the stage and introducing the rest of his teammates. Clayton led a variety of popular cheers, drummed up support for the Bucs' defense and generally had a good time on the stage.
"I'm just here to support our fans," said the sixth-year receiver. "They came out to see us and they're having a good time. They're out here in the rain; the least we could do is show up and talk to them, give some energy to the crowd and get some feedback. We think we're going to get the same thing during the season at Raymond James Stadium."
That was the same impression that Clayton's fellow receiver Sammie Stroughter got. As one of the two rookies at the event (Freeman was the other), Stroughter was getting his first taste of what fan support in the Bay area is like when football is about to begin again. It gave the former Oregon State star even more reason to look forward to his NFL debut on Sunday.
"This is just a little mini-version of what Sunday is going to be like," said a grinning Stroughter. "I can't wait for that. I'm expecting a sold-out house and we're going to go out there and leave it all on the line."
Even after the last Buccaneer player had left the stage, the celebratory night was still picking up steam. Not long after the Bucs had finished their speeches, hit band Trapt completed the evening with a hard-driving concert. In the nearby Channelside establishments, revelers could be seen in Buccaneer jerseys and t-shirts, some of them still drying out. For some, the fun was just beginning.
Buccaneer players left Channelside knowing that, in less than two days, the party would be at Raymond James Stadium. On one hand, Tampa Bay's season opener against Dallas is serious business; on the other hand, it's a reason to celebrate, as football is back and the Buccaneers are hoping to chase another championship. Dominik was pleased that so many of the team's key players recognized the dual nature of Sunday's opener and chose to come share in the excitement with the fans.
"I'm proud of all these guys for coming out here," said Dominik. "This is just part of what we've been trying to establish all year, through the offseason and into training camp and now into the season, which everyone is excited about. That's been our idea all along: To give the community a chance to know our players and get back in touch with the team. We understand and we think they understand that we're all in this together. This is their team. This is our team. That's our mentality, and you could see it in action tonight, even with everyone battling the elements."