TAMPA – An event that began back in 2007 with the Buccaneers offensive linemen giving Thanksgiving dinners away to a few hundred Tampa Bay area families in need has not only more than tripled in the number of families it's able to feed every holiday, but it's become an annual tradition that connects generations of Bucs offensive linemen.
"Turkey Time with the O-line" was the brainchild of former offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood. And current Bucs offensive tackle Demar Dotson continued the event after their departure. Now, Dotson — the graybeard of the O-line — knows it will be in good hands one day when his time as a Buc ends.
"I can't even imagine those guys thinking that this thing would last and take off as big as it has," Dotson said of Joseph and Trueblood. "So those guys left a legacy that guys like myself get to carry on and guys like Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet get to carry on for years after I'm even gone.
"That's the beauty of this thing," Dotson added. "This isn't just guys coming out here and putting a jersey on coming in and wasting time. These guys are invested in this. They love doing this. They look forward to doing this, and they come out here and come in and put their time and energy and effort into it and they enjoy it."
On Tuesday afternoon, the entire Bucs offensive line spent two hours handing out Thanksgiving dinners — a turkey, sides, cooking and storage supplies, a pie and a $20 Publix gift card — to 1,000 families.
The families — who were selected by more than a dozen local non-profit groups — lined their cars up in the tailgating parking lot between Raymond James Stadium and the Bucs' training facility and were eventually greeted by linemen, cheerleaders and volunteers of all ages.
"It's been awesome, seeing all these families, and seeing the joy on their face when you hand them a turkey and a pumpkin pie," said center Ryan Jensen. "Especially the kids, you're like, 'Hey, I've got a special job for you, you've got to hold this pumpkin pie and make sure it gets home.'"
The linemen donated $35,000 to make the event possible, and this year, the team's Social Justice Initiative fund matched their donation with a $35,000 grant that will go to Feeding Tampa Bay to continue to feed families in need through the holiday season.
"It goes further because we're not only give to the 1,000 people here," said tackle Donovan Smith, who is on the team's Social Justice Initiative player board. "We're able to match it and it's going to feed way more — I don't even know how many — so anytime we're able to do that, it's a blessing."
To a newcomer like Jensen, who signed a free-agent deal in March after spending his first four seasons with the Ravens, he realized quickly how important the event was to his fellow linemen.
"When I first got told about the event, I was like, 'Wow, this is awesome,' to be able to raise this money for these families that might not have had a Thanksgiving otherwise," Jensen said. "Just to see the excitement on Dot's face and on Donnie's face, all the guys. When I asked them, 'What's this Turkey time with the O-line?' I didn't know what it was. They're like, 'Yeah we hand out Thanksgiving dinner.' I'm like, 'I'm in, that's awesome.'"
Dotson said the event suits the group well, as it did back when it first began.
"(When you're a) lineman, you love to give because we're guys who don't get a lot of attention, and that's what we're doing out here," Dotson said. "We're not looking for attention. We're just looking to give back to the community and I think every time a new guy comes in here and hears about this, they jump on board because they're willing to give.
"That's the beautiful thing about it that every year; we have guys who are willing to donate their money and their time to give to families and make sure families have a Thanksgiving meal."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard