A million miles from the lockout, on a scalding, uncomfortable morning when the air felt like car exhaust and the grass felt like it was in a rotisserie oven, a quarterback stood with his team gathered around him.
For a moment, at least, it felt like football.
For a morning, it felt as if a quarterback had refused to let an offseason go to waste.
Welcome to the Josh Freeman Minicamp, a place where millionaires gather to sweat for free. Player after player — more than 50 in all — the Bucs came to the fields of the IMG Academies, and they worked, and they ran, and they went to meetings, and they practiced under the eyes of Rental Coaches.
They came because they are hungry, and they came because they care, and as much as anything, they came because their quarterback asked it of them. It didn't matter that they were scattered across the country, because Josh called. It didn't matter that they have been locked out of their usual workplace, because Josh called. It didn't matter that they weren't getting paid, because Josh called.
And just like that, Freeman has tightened his hold on the leadership of this team.
If any good is to come out of this lockout, it will happen on fields such as these, where Freeman has worked to keep his team working. After all, last offseason was when Freeman grew into a player; how can he not push his young teammates to do the same?
That's in his job description, you know. It is up to a quarterback to lead his team downfield. It is up to him to drive his teammates, to spark them, to push them. It is up to him to keep them marching forward.
"It's a quarterback's job," Freeman said, perspiration still running down his face. "They voted me captain last year. I take a lot of pride in my leadership. It's something you have to do."
Out of the commissioner's sight, this should delight the Bucs' front office to the point of dancing in the hallways. Once the owners locked the doors, the players had every right to gather on a foreign beach and sip Rum Runners until all the noise was over. Who could have blamed them?
In sports, however, there are still players who are driven by accomplishment as much as by paycheck. There are players who want to be better, who have to be better, and who have to help their teammates do the same.
More and more, it appears the Bucs have found one of those in Freeman. Put it this way: If you played for the Bucs, could you tell Freeman no? Me, neither. Those players who miss this week are going to have a lot of explaining to do to their teammates.
"Josh is our leader," receiver Sammie Stroughter said. "I know that if I would have missed (Tuesday), he would have been on the phone (Tuesday night) letting me have it."
Two years ago Freeman was their quarterback, and last year he was their leader. These days he is their drive, their conscience, their Pied Piper. These days Freeman is the franchise, and you might as well put his face on the helmet above those crossed swords. He leads like Brooks. Like Nickerson. Like Andreychuk and Cliff Floyd and John Lynch and Marty St. Louis and every great leader Tampa Bay has come to know.
Also, he is the oldest 23-year-old in the NFL.
You cannot help but wonder how this impromptu minicamp would have been attended if not for Freeman. Granted, players work to satisfy their standards, not someone else's. But there are fields in California and Arizona and wherever else players find themselves. It's safe to say the drills would have been less crowded without Freeman's telephone work.
"We have a hungry team," Freeman said. "Going out and winning football games next fall is important to our guys. We have some passionate dudes."
(At this point, we will pause the column while general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris high five each other.)
Freeman always has grasped the importance of the offseason. Last year he studied film with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, and he worked almost every day on becoming a more efficient passer. Because of it, his touchdowns rose from 10 to 25, and his interceptions fell from 18 to six, and his rating rose from 59.8 to 95.9.
Freeman is still working on his game, he said. He studies film at home these days, and he practices at USF and at IMG. The goal is the same: He wants to get better. Evidently, a lot of other Bucs do, too.
Say this for Tuesday's workout. It looked a lot like a minicamp. The players went smoothly from one drill to another, and everything seemed organized, and no one brought picket signs.
Was it the same as with coaches? Of course not. If it were, coaches wouldn't get paid so much. Coaches can add context, and they can reference past games and scheduled games.
Still, this was more productive than, say, a round of golf or a trip to Cancun. This was a team doing what it could to make sure the season doesn't sneak up on it. This was a quarterback who refused to let his team sit out the offseason.
Think of it like this: How would you rather your team have spent a summer's morning? And who else would you rather have it follow?