BRANDON — A silver Range Rover pulled into the Toys R Us parking lot shortly before 9 a.m., looking like one more vehicle jamming Westfield Brandon two days before Christmas.
But in the blink of an eye, the passenger door opened and out stepped a big man known for wearing red when he works, preoccupied with a list he was checking twice.
Antonio Bryant pressed his cell phone to an ear. He was busy getting a progress report on the more than 30 needy children and parents arriving any minute in a caravan of white stretch limos.
Then the driver's door swung open, revealing a set of reindeer antlers — the clip-on variety attached to the head of another familiar figure, Michael Clayton. He sported a custom jersey with glittery letters that spelled "Bucs" bright enough to light the way on this impending mission.
In truth, the moment was filled with meaning and perspective for the pair of Bucs wide receivers. They were only two days removed from a crushing loss to the San Diego Chargers, leaving their team's playoff hopes in jeopardy; and five days away from a final shot to reach the postseason on Sunday.
Yet, on this Tuesday, Bryant and Clayton were Santa and Rudolph. And they were collaborating on a Christmas story for 10 families in extreme economic stress this holiday season, with none facing the prospect of more than a few small presents under the tree.
The youngsters, all students at Potter Elementary in Tampa, had piled into one white Escalade limo and a pair of white Lincolns an hour earlier, with no inkling of what awaited them courtesy of No. 89, Bryant: a surprise shopping spree, allowing the kids to fill carts with as many Toys R Us goodies as possible in 89 seconds, and everything free to keep.
"You know, when I was young, I was on the other side of the fence," Bryant said as the limos approached. "I'm fortunate enough that I can go anywhere just about and buy what I want to buy. I just want to allow them that opportunity on this day."
Bryant, who grew up with little but a loving family in Miami, remembers telling his mother not to give him presents, since his three younger siblings needed them more. "It was a burden on her, and as I got older I realized how hard it was," he said. "And I understood what Christmas really meant. It's all about giving and allowing kids to be happy."
That sentiment motivated many Bucs into action this week, lending a hand to people facing pressures far beyond wins, losses and playoff spots.
• • •
A day earlier, another scene unfolded in the lobby of One Buc Place. Thirty families — selected for the team by the United Way — gathered for what was touted as a special 2 p.m. tour of the club's office and training complex.
By 1:30 Monday, the lobby was already filled with parents and children, from infants to toddlers to teens. A handful of Swashbuckler cheerleaders greeted the guests with smiles and small-talk and the Bucs mascot, Captain Fear, clowned with the crowd.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the complex," said Sharon Schofield, an unemployed X-ray technician accompanied by son Jacolbi, 16, and daughters Jaidah, 7, and Jorden, 5.
"Hopefully we'll meet the players," Jacolbi added.
None of the 100 or so visitors had any idea that they were preselected for the organization's second annual Day of Giving. At 2 p.m., they were escorted into a spacious auditorium, where, for starters each family happily received a box containing a $50 Publix card and a $25 Hess gas card.
Then, event emcee Jeff Ryan, the Bucs' broadcast manager, called a handful of players on stage: fullback Byron Storer, long-snapper Andrew Economos, reserve quarterback Josh Johnson and injured cornerback Jermaine Phillips, his broken right arm in a cast and sling.
Phillips, holding a wireless mike, moved through the crowd with a grin while leading a rousing chorus of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But wait. Ryan informed the group that there was more — free tickets for everyone to the Bucs-Raiders regular-season finale Sunday. The news triggered excited cheers and applause as the tickets were passed out to each family.
Minutes later, the unsuspecting guests were led outside past the training fields. When they turned a corner into a long breezeway, the children screamed at the sight of dozens upon dozens of custom-selected bicycles lining the walls. Teenagers received gift bags with portable DVD players. Then came the tour de force: a bus trip to Target and $250 for each family.
"Oh wow! I got to get on this!" Jorden yelled, climbing on her new pink Princess bike.
"This makes Christmas so much easier — this is the icing on the cake," said her mother as three tour buses awaited.
The Bucs mingled with the families, savoring the scene.
"This is just all about the Christmas spirit," Phillips said. "We're all in a position here where we can give back. And to be able to put smiles on kids' faces, you can't put it into words. We might not have won on Sunday, but we won on Monday."
At Target, helpers were assigned to each family. And a new crew of Bucs was on hand to pitch in and provide encouragement: rookie cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive linemen Jovan Haye, Jimmy Wilkerson and Greg Peterson, safety Will Allen, and linebacker Adam Hayward.
"Football is what we do, not who we are," Allen said. "Whenever you have any platform, it's important to understand it comes with a responsibility."
• • •
Outside Toys R Us, Bryant, donning his red 89 jersey, and Clayton greeted the limo passengers. Only the parents had been let in on what was coming next.
Bryant got the idea just a week earlier when Andre Johnson — his longtime friend from Miami who wears No. 80 for the Texans — staged an 80-second shopping spree in Houston.
He immediately called his Dallas-based business manager, Maria Lewis. "I told him, Antonio, it's impossible," she said. "There is no way in God's name that we'll be able to pull this off."
Lewis tried to steer him to gift certificates: "He said, 'No, I want to do the same thing.' ''
Lewis pinpointed Potter as the school based on the ratio of students in the greatest economic need. She requested that 10 children be chosen to take part. But the school came up with 10 families so siblings wouldn't be left out. "Antonio said, 'Don't worry about it, let's do it,' " she said.
That's when Clayton stepped in, offering to help shoulder the expense, and calling a friend at Allure Limousine Service, which donated the three stretches. "It's a process — you start something like Antonio did and people jump on board and the impact is even greater," he said.
Eager children and adults soon went inside for a walk-through to locate items. Then the race was on — 89 (not strictly enforced) seconds of supervised mayhem. With Bryant and store workers helping, kids piled Barbie playhouses, Star Wars blasters, battery-powered cars and all manner of bikes into their carts. Jaquaz Howard, 7, ran back to get a pump for the dirt bike Bryant placed in his cart.
"A pump! That kid is thinking — I want him on my team," Bryant said, smiling.
A handful of youngsters carted off motorized bikes, Hummers and Range Rovers, costing between $400 and $700. "It makes me want to cry," said Debra Pursley, looking at the stacks of presents for her three children. "I'm out of work and had only planned to buy them some clothes and shoes. This is a dream come true."
And an expensive one for Bryant and Clayton. A store official estimated the total purchases at close to $15,000, but that didn't count the full game systems the two Bucs got for each family as well — a preemptive move to prevent chaos in the gaming section.
Soon, a large U-Haul truck arrived, and every present was bagged, marked and lifted inside. And the delirious group got set for the next stop of the day with Bryant and Clayton: a movie theater to watch Disney's Bolt.
By 10:30 a.m., the silver SUV pulled out with the three limos. To every kid inside, it must have looked more like a sleigh.