BRANDON — The night started with applause.
No boos or angry rants. No spectators wearing paper bags on their heads shouting obscenities.
As Tampa Bay Buccaneer players entered the gymnasium at Bell Shoals Baptist Church on Monday, the message became clear. There is more to life than football.
"At the end of the day, it's just a game," linebacker Adam Hayward said to a crowd of families, Bucs fans and little league teams. "I can walk away from a loss and remind myself this isn't my life. I can go home to my 7-month-old daughter and every time, she smiles from ear to ear. I see her and I forgot about football."
Hayward was one of four Buccaneers to participate in Sports Talk, a live panel discussion hosted by Bell Shoals. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, punter Michael Koenen and backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky also attended the hourlong event. Bucs chaplain Doug Gilcrease led a question-and-answer session, where the athletes spoke openly about faith, family and being 0-7.
"Obviously this season hasn't gone the way we wanted it to and that is an understatement," Gilcrease said. "How do you guys deal with it?"
McCoy, a first-round 2010 draft pick, smiled.
"Someone asked me recently, 'How is life?' and I said, 'Life is great,' " McCoy said. "The guy gave me this look like I was supposed to say life is tough. But, look, football only lasts a couple of years. Life is a lot longer than that. I have my wife and kids."
Orlovsky addressed not being moved up to starting quarterback after the release of Josh Freeman earlier this season. Gilcrease said he admired how Orlovsky handled the situation. He kept his cool.
"I can't say it's been easy," Orlovsky said. "Thankfully I've learned as a disciple, that once I made the decision to follow Jesus, that everything placed in front of me is for me a reason."
Orlovsky and his teammates said, despite temptations, they have grown as Christians because of being in the NFL. They participate in Bible studies together. They pray at the 50-yard line after each game. They avoid the fast lane negatives some associate with professional athletes: drugs, alcohol and chasing women.
McCoy shared his personal testimony of trading in the high life for church life. When he tore his left bicep as a rookie, he turned to God. He stopped defining himself as a football player, choosing instead to follow Christ.
"God doesn't take it easy on you when he wants to teach you something," McCoy said. "He sometimes lets you cry it out until you learn your lesson."
After losing his mother to breast cancer at age 20, Hayward said he had a lot to learn. He tried using fast cars, women and liquor to fill the void. He drove drunk. He blacked out. Then God intervened, he said. Today, he and his wife live on a farm in Plant City. His favorite television show is Duck Dynasty.
"Farming and ranching is my passion," Hayward said. "Football is for fun."
Gilcrease later spoke to the young people in the audience at Bell Shoals. Football players from local high schools attended the event. The Bullets, a boys' baseball team out of Dover, occupied a table up front.
"You see these guys with the nice cars with the rims and the big necklaces," Gilcrease said. "That isn't what is going to ultimately make you happy or bring meaning to your life."
McCoy laughed, lifting his chain necklace.
"Your value isn't determined by a sport or what you do," Gilcrease said. "As a Christian, your value is determined by who you are."
Bullet player Will Sollars, 13, walked away from the night feeling inspired.
"I learned it's not as much about wins and losses," he said. "It's more about what you get out of it and what lessons you learn in your life."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at email@example.com.