TAMPA — Moments into a kickball game, Bucs tackle Donovan Smith stepped away from the crowd of youths gathered with teammate Jameis Winston behind a makeshift home plate, raised his hand and gently called out: "Officer!"
The Tampa Police officer nodded, smiled and walked over, taking his place in line. He would end up popping up for an out, but at the same time, the at-bat was successful.
The central hope of "Champions of Character Day" at Perry Harvey Sr. Park on Thursday night was, in the midst of serious national tension between African-Americans and law enforcement officers, to bring Tampa teenagers and police together.
"We're trying to start the process of trying to prevent what's going on outside of Tampa (from happening) inside of Tampa," said former Gators defensive end Thaddeus Bullard, better known today as WWE wrestling star Titus O'Neil. "It's our obligation, not only to our youth but to our community, to have a good relationship with law enforcement, both with the Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department."
So in the shadow of the statue of Harvey, Tampa's first black councilman, Bullard spoke to a large group of teenagers and youths from the Tampa Parks and Recreation's "Stay & Play" program. Winston, wearing a garnet FSU football shirt, also had a message for his audience, reminding them that they were in full control of their future, facing no greater adversity than he and others have overcome.
"You've got a wonderful opportunity … to control your destiny," Winston said. "Everything that you can get involved in, everything you can to do to make yourself busy, get on it. … Getting more active in the community. There's a lot of grass out here. I'm not from West Tampa, but when I see grass, I think of a football field.
"It's something to do instead of being inside, watching TV all the time, playing those video games. By you working those thumbs, it's not helping you become a better person. … You've got to get better every day. You have to read more. You have to be proud to go to school."
Winston, Bullard and Smith then took the field with the kids — and occasionally the officers also in attendance — for a huge kickball game in the park near downtown, with Bullard and Winston, the former Gator and former Seminole, each leading a team of dozens.
Bullard said he had good and bad experiences with police growing up but credits time spent at the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch as a child with helping get him on a path to the University of Florida and his success that followed.
"I want them to understand that you've got to work with people in authority. You have to understand they're really here to help you," he said. "Don't let a few unfortunate situations outside of Tampa or even inside Tampa derail them. … I'm looking at ways to try to make this community as strong as possible."
On Thursday night, there were hot dogs and hamburgers and kickball and laughter, and for Bullard, a renewed hope that a small step was taken to improving a key part of the city he calls home.
"The issues that we have in the world are really all solvable when you decide to put your race aside, put your financial background aside, and everybody decides to work together," he said.