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NFL players leave playground behind for Tampa neighborhoods

Red carpet: Former NFL player and current ESPN radio show host Mike Golic, right, speaks to reporters about helping ex-players before heading into the Gridiron Greats Legends Dinner.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Red carpet: Former NFL player and current ESPN radio show host Mike Golic, right, speaks to reporters about helping ex-players before heading into the Gridiron Greats Legends Dinner.

Seven NFL players helped turn a vacant East Tampa lot into a playground Wednesday morning as part of the Home Depot NFL Neighborhood MVP Program.

All-Pros such as Cowboys TE Jason Witten, Eagles S Brian Dawkins, Panthers WR Steve Smith, Texans WR Andre Johnson and Falcons LB Keith Brooking joined about 160 Home Depot associates and about 40 volunteers from the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa in building a public playground and an additional one at the King's Kids Christian Academy.

"I'm having a good time doing a good thing," Dawkins said while laying tile for one of the playgrounds.

The seven players — Giants WR Amani Toomer and Lions WR Mike Furrey joined the others — were selected as finalists for the Neighborhood MVP Program out of 17 NFL players who dedicated themselves to charitable work in their individual markets. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner was also nominated but could not attend because he's preparing for the Super Bowl.

It's the program's second year (last year's winner was Bucs RB Warrick Dunn), but this was the first time all the players gathered for a playground-building event.

The players helped for about an hour and the morning ended with a ceremony during which Witten was given the MVP award, a trophy and $25,000 for the Jason Witten S.C.O.R.E. Foundation, a charity focused on helping those affected by domestic abuse. Before leaving, the players signed autographs for the volunteers.

"It's not just what we're doing physically here, everyone's out here strengthening the community," Toomer said.

Churches Chime in: Even churches are getting into the Super Bowl action.

Without Walls International Church in Tampa has lined up football players and celebrities to share the good news with its members. The church's festivities launch at 7 p.m. today with inspirational talks by retired WR Tim Brown, who played for the Buccaneers and the Raiders, and Jets DE Kenyon Coleman. The church also expects Jamie Jones, lead singer of the group All-4-One, and rapper Deezer D.

On Sunday, rapper-turned-minister Mase will preach at the church's 10 a.m. service. For both events, doors open an hour in advance. There is no charge for admission or parking at the church located at 2511 N Grady Ave.

And on Saturday, Bishop Robert Lynch, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, will hold a Kick-Off Mass. The service will take place at Christ the King Catholic Church at 821 S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Aimed at athletes and sports lovers who may not be able to make Mass on Sunday, the service begins at 4 p.m.

Yeah, It's really me: Imagine if after you met an NFL player, he called your friends to tell them all about it. Today through Saturday, that will really happen at the NFL Experience when 32 players will work shifts taking dialing requests. Today's lineup includes Barrett Ruud of the Bucs, Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars and Roy Williams of the Cowboys. Players will be available from 4 to 8 p.m. today and Friday and from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. The NFL Experience is located next to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Tickets are $18.50 for adults and $12.50 for 12 and under. They may be purchased by calling 1-866-849-4635, online at SuperBowl.com or at the gate.

Wednesday review

What/where: Mike Ditka's Gridiron Greats Legends Dinner, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tampa.

Who was there: Mike Ditka, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Rocky Bleier, Jack Youngblood, Conrad Dobler, Randy Cross, Marv Levy, Chuck Foreman, Jim McMahon.

Notable: The $1,000-a-plate dinner supports the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which provides financial support to retired players in need due to inadequate disability or pensions. "It's an opportunity to give back," said Dobler, who made three Pro Bowls with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s. Dobler walked with a cane because of chronic knee problems that continue to require surgeries. "I don't have a lot of money, but I have time, so I can donate my time to help people who don't have friends like I do." Said Cross, the former 49er: "It's a shame the public has to be involved. The league should take care of this, but Mike Ditka and company are shining a light on this, trying to bring a change."

Times staff writers Greg Auman, Sherri Day and Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report.

NFL players leave playground behind for Tampa neighborhoods 01/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 12:03am]

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