The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' annual Night Practice is an exciting event for all involved, as the team prepares in a game-type atmosphere and simultaneously puts on an entertaining show for thousands of fans.
Just as importantly, however, Saturday night's practice at Raymond James Stadium was a chance for the Buccaneers to give special thanks to a group of people who have sacrificed greatly to protect our country. For the third consecutive year, the Buccaneers invited a group of more than 30 veterans from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital to cheer on the team from a special spot on the sideline during Night Practice.
The wounded warriors were given VIP treatment and were recognized by all in attendance at the midway point of practice when General Manager Mark Dominik led the crowd in a heartfelt standing ovation. Cornerback Ronde Barber and running back LeGarrette Blount made a special visit during practice to take time and thank all of the veterans by signing autographs, posing for pictures and talking with the men and women. Buccaneers cheerleaders also joined in on the festivities and seemed to be a hit with the men. At the end of the two-hour practice, the entire team broke its huddle and headed over to greet the visiting vets.
The wounded warriors on hand Saturday were from all walks of life, having fought in battles from World War II to our most recent conflict in Afghanistan.
One veteran who seemed to garner a lot of attention was Scott Nicholas, a Miami native who was enjoying his first experience on the sidelines of an NFL stadium. The 35-year-old Scott has worked in stadiums at NFL games before, but has never had the chance to take the field, and the experience was one he said he'll never forget.
"It's exciting to be out, to be here," said Nicholas. "This is the best thing I've ever been to; I can't even explain it. The players are real cool and they make you feel like somebody special. They come and talk to you; it's really cool."
Although he grew up a Dolphins fan, Nicholas admitted that he cheers for any team from Florida. He said his one-on-one time with Barber and Blount was one of the most satisfying moments he's had in a long time.
"They said thank you for coming out and it was just really amazing to meet them," he said. "I don't think I could meet them any other way. This was really a unique opportunity and it all means a lot to me. This stadium is amazing and this organization is truly one-of-a-kind."
Dominik has made honoring our servicemen and women one of the top priorities in his community efforts. On Saturday, he personally spoke with every one of the more than 30 guests during practice.
"I think the James A. Haley Hospital does amazing work with our wounded veterans," Dominik said. "I think it's really important for us show that even though there have been some injuries or something has happened to these young men and women, they are still very well-respected and we are so appreciative of the sacrifice that they have given. They go through all this so that we can have the freedom to do things like play football, and that doesn't go unnoticed by me or the organization."
Sherlaina Johnson, a recreational therapist at the hospital, explained just how much the visit meant for those who are either physically disabled or mentally affected by what they have endured.
"We have representation from all over the hospital," she said. "It helps create a good quality of life for these veterans, no matter what happened to them. To have someone taking out the time and recognizing and appreciating and thanking them goes a long way for these soldiers. This partnership with us and the Bucs has really been special."
Johnson also explained that events like this can help the families as much as they help the veterans themselves, as loved ones often experience their own struggles and hardships when dealing with an injured family member.
"This is good for the families too," she said. "The families are stressed, they are under a lot of pressure, some of them are even living at the hospital, so it's very good for them to get out and come to events like this."
Johnson pointed out that many of the visiting veterans, like Nicholas, were first-timers at Night Practice, and they were all extremely excited to be a part of the evening.
"The first-time guys were surprised and they were really excited," she said. "It means an awful lot when they get that recognition from the players, the coaches and the fans."
Rob Banta, a 46-year-old veteran from Ann Arbor, Michigan was another first-time attendee who was grateful for the support from the Buccaneers.
"It's awesome," he said. "I've never been to an NFL stadium before, so it's a real pleasure to be here for the first time and come on the field with the players and the cheerleaders. Getting autographs, it's truly something else. It's amazing."
Fireworks framed the stadium at the end of practice as the players mingled in the veterans' tent and expressed their appreciation face-to-face. As the team walked off the field, Dominik thanked the wounded warriors again, leaving them with a small token of appreciation and some personal words of encouragement.
"We have a special coin that we created to thank our military," Dominik said. "I give them that and a quick little message that I keep private between me and those men and women. Basically, I want them to know that as an organization and as a person individually, I really appreciate their choice to serve this country."