Pulling up to the gates of One Buc Place in Tampa can be inspiring. The giant logo along Martin Luther King drive points you in the direction of the iron gates and the two-story glass football that becomes a popular photo spot. Even the few who weren’t Buccaneers fans in our party had to admit it was pretty cool.
The awesomeness wasn’t the main attraction for more than 50 kids between 6 and 15 who were invited guests to the training and practice facility of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They had a purpose and a mission. Inside the main gate, but not yet inside the grassy areas of the practice fields, these youngsters were throwing and kicking footballs in the parking lot. They were warming up. They were the local winners of the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition.
This was section competition, the last stop before the team competition, which will be held at Raymond James Stadium on the morning of the Bucs home game against the Atlanta Falcons. This sectional was the first to be held. There will be four across the state next weekend and a final sectional in Orlando the week after that. The sectional winners will have their scores compared. Even though there are six winners, only four advance. It’s a tough situation to explain to a 6-year-old that yes, you won, but no, you aren’t going to the finals. It even confused some of the adults at last week’s competition.
Scattered through the group were several youngsters from Bartow. They earned their right to be there by being best in their local competition at 555 Park on Sept. 25. They spent the days leading up to the Oct. 7 sectional with hours of practice, honing the skills that would give them the chance to move on.
The gates to the practice fields opened on a bright, hot Sunday morning. While parents headed for the tables under the umbrellas, the kids hit the center field to continue their warm-ups, knowing the time was near. Organizers called the group together and volunteers moved into position. The hopefuls were lined up in the order in which they would participate. In the local competition, you had to do each skill in rapid succession. Today, you would punt and then wait until everyone had punted before you started your passing. It allowed time for those who were discouraged with their efforts to regain the confidence and remind themselves they are champions, which is why they are here in the first place.
One by one, they took turns kicking. Organizers and volunteers marked the spots and measured, calling out the results for all to hear. Parents lined both sides of the field, shouting encouragement for each boy and girl to try their best and cheering their efforts. The kids themselves spent the time talking to the friends who attended with them and making new friends along the way. The show of sportsmanship was clear. Everyone wanted to win, but they equally wanted the others to do their best.
When the competition had ended, the kids and parents were put through the longest 10 minutes of their lives while the results were tallied. Soon, the clipboards returned and the medals followed right behind them. A reverent hush fell over the field as the winners were announced.
As the names were called, shy smiles turned to big grins as medals were handed out. Beniyah Smith, appearing in her third sectional, took a second place with a combined score of 125 feet, 10 inches in the girls 8-9. Cameron Thomas claimed a close second spot in boys 8-9 with a 173 feet, 8 inch distance.
Only three feet kept D’Ante Jones from claiming the sectional championship as he tallied 243 feet in the boys 12-13 competition to get second place. Jeremiah Bird improved on his local championship effort, getting a total of 110 feet, 6 inches and earned second place in boys 14-15.
While the community will not have a representative in this year’s final, the fire burns deeply in many of those who came oh so close this year. The incentive will be there, especially now that the experience at One Buc Place is in their minds. As it was mentioned, all of the kids were winners and everyone should be proud that they did their best, no matter the score. It’s just another example of great kids in the community doing great things.