TAMPA — On a long stretch of asphalt just a mile south of Raymond James Stadium, boys grow up idolizing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's always been that way for kids in the Lincoln Gardens-Carver City neighborhood, whether they watched quarterback Doug Williams in 1978 or promising starter Josh Freeman today.
After games, they would slip out onto Hubert Avenue for pickup football, dreaming their talents would carry them out of a neighborhood where the census puts per-capita income at about $13,000 and into the stadium, where the average Buccaneer earns more than $700,000 a year.
For the residents who live in the stadium's shadows, the NFL's blackout policy has taken away more than just a Sunday television tradition. It has put positive role models for their kids further out of reach. And without the pros to emulate, Hubert Avenue and Lincoln Gardens street corners have other role models the boys can follow.
"Many of our kids, with our socioeconomic backgrounds, they're not the ones who can buy the tickets," said Mick Boddie, athletic director of the neighborhood's youth football league. "They're the ones feeling the sting and who this affects more. It is a rougher neighborhood. Many of those kids, if they're not with us, they'll be on the streets."
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In South Tampa, the youth league teams are called the Seahawks and in Carrollwood they are the Cardinals. But in Lincoln Gardens, they are the Junior Buccaneers, outfitted in the same pewter helmets, logo and colors. Freeman's No. 5 was one of the most requested numbers among the 180 kids in the league, Boddie said.
The young players practice on a field dedicated to a teen who came up through their ranks but was killed in an unsolved 2007 neighborhood shooting. It's where Horace Burnett, 51, watches his 8-year-old grandson Jeremiah Burnett spin and hurdle as if he was Super Bowl champion Ronde Barber.
"It hurts me because I can't see the Bucs," the elder Burnett said. "Hurts my grandson, too."
The boy often asks Burnett, who is on disability, why the Bucs aren't on TV or why they can't just attend the games.
"Grandson," Burnett tells him, "we can't afford to go to the games. We'll see them someday."
The NFL says it is sensitive to the economic struggle. That's why it puts recorded telecasts of blacked-out games online hours afterward, spokesman Dan Masonson said. The League has no plans to change its policy, which requires stadiums to sell out 72 hours in advance or face a television blackout that extends 75 miles in radius.
"We understand the adversity people are feeling these days, and their struggles are not lost on us," Buccaneers spokesman Jonathan Grella said. "Whether they can attend games or not, they're still Bucs fans, and we hope that bond will remain strong through all this."
Partly because of the blackouts and partly because the team wants to promote a young and relatively unknown roster, the Bucs have increased the number of community and charitable events involving players.
Kicker Connor Barth and defensive end Tim Crowder visited the Junior Buccaneers on Sept. 21. Parents say rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, who lives nearby, has stopped by the practice field on his own a few times.
These impressions, in person and on TV, serve as carrots that entice neighborhood boys to stay in school so they can play football, parents say.
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Rufus Lewis has lived in a house next to a Carver City neighborhood sign since 1965. He describes his interest in the team as "all the way," dating back to '70s era players like Council Rudolph and Frank Oliver.
But the blackouts bother him, and it extends beyond fanaticism. Lewis, 66, a retired Tampa police officer and a neighborhood board member, said teens need to see a young black man like Buccaneer head coach Raheem Morris on the sidelines so they believe they can be him, too.
"They're really hurting the community as a whole," he said.
On the stadium press box of Jefferson High School, the words, "Gateway to College," have been painted in sight of the practice field to remind players what to push for. More than 10 NFL players have come through the Lincoln Gardens' high school.
"We breathe football," said Andre Davis, a senior wide receiver recruited by Florida State University and the University of Miami.
He and his teammates have met Freeman and other Buccaneers during various community events. Davis said he learned how to carry himself, as well as how to run routes, all tips that could help him with his aspirations.
"I would like to see the Bucs more on TV because I learn a lot from the pros," he said. "Coming out low, getting pad level, getting in and out of the breaks."
Davis' father, Andre Sr., 39, says the Bucs are "all I know," and he said he would like to take his son to more of his favorite pro team's games. But he works as an airline maintenance worker and his wife is a schoolteacher. Tickets cost an average of $72.
"People want to fill the stands, but it's just not in the budget," Davis Sr. said. "Us little people just don't have it."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]