TRINITY— It was one of those days likely to last for a while.
At least in the memories of kids like Josh Merrick, 9, who came to school in Tampa Bay Buccaneers gear, complete with taped feet and blackout under his eyes. Or Matthew Rucco, 10, who boasted an orange throwback jersey bearing autographs of former Buc stars Brad Johnson and Lee Roy Selmon. Or Sal Zito, 11, who doesn't play on an organized team, but often imagines himself playing with the pros during afternoon pickup games in his neighborhood.
On Tuesday, the three Longleaf Elementary students were among 30 children who got to train with the pros during an Ultimate NFL Physical Education Class on their school campus.
With the temperature hanging at 49 degrees and a brisk wind blowing across the basketball courts, students in grades 3 through 5 kept themselves warm and out of breath while practicing walking squats, pushups and jumping jacks with Bucs linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. They jumped rope and gyrated in Hula Hoops with Bucs cheerleaders and the team mascot, Captain Fear; ran sprints with safety Sean Jones on their heels and zigzagged through an agility running course with wide receiver Sammie Stroughter breathing down their necks.
"I'm telling you, I'm going to beat you coming down this final stretch," Stroughter warned a grinning 10-year-old, Trey Von, as they sidled up to the starting line. "Pressure's on. Now, go!"
The 60 minutes of fitness fun was just part of an award Longleaf earned for winning the NFL Play 60 Super School sweepstakes. About 5,500 schools entered the contest, with 34 named winners (one school in each of the 32 NFL markets and two from non-NFL markets). Bucs players also presented a $10,000 check to be used for wellness equipment at the school, posed for pictures, autographed sports equipment and spoke to students about the importance of exercising for at least 60 minutes a day and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
"I can't believe this — look at all this red," McKenzie said after he and others were greeted with a rousing welcome from Longleaf students, school faculty and members of the Mitchell High School marching band.
Believe it. That's the norm, at least on Fridays when Longleaf students are encouraged to wear their favorite football team's shirt to school.
"Being that we're in the Bucs' market, we are mostly in red," said Longleaf PE teacher Donna Qualtiere, who entered the contest on her school's behalf before the start of this year's football season.
For the contest, Qualtiere had to answer three essay questions and submit photographs from a Back to Football Friday event she organized at Longleaf.
"I love to take pictures and love photography, but I wasn't sure with the three little essays I had to write," said Qualtiere, adding that she had some help from fellow PE teachers Addie Mackness and Trish Ruocco, now at Schrader Elementary.
Activities during that Football Friday event had students tossing footballs while gyrating in Hula Hoops, playing flag tag with teachers, making floats and signs and marching around the school for a Bucs and Bears Parade and learning about healthy food choices.
"The kids and the faculty all got into it," Qualtiere said. "It was a lot of fun."
And it ended up paying off.
That $10,000 will go a long way in purchasing physical fitness equipment for the school, said Longleaf principal Arlene Bodden. "You have to have a healthy body if you want to have a healthy mind," she said. "We try to instill that message into the minds of these kids. They are, after all, our future."
That message could be a lasting one, especially for a kid with big dreams like Sal Zito, who had the opportunity to demonstrate one of his own pickup game moves for Bucs players: a "fake left spin."
"Show me that move again," Stroughter said, when Sal had finished. "I just might use that one on Sunday."