TAMPA — Christmas came early at One Buc Place on Wednesday, as one by one, players sat at their lockers, opened orange boxes, pulled away the white paper and unveiled a special pair of shoes they'd asked for this year.
The Bucs' game at Green Bay on Sunday is part of the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign — 45 players have special custom cleats that allow them to bring awareness to a charity or organization.
"This is great — outside of the helmet, jersey and number, a lot of people don't really know the man behind the face mask," said tackle Donovan Smith, whose size-16 cleats have the bright blue puzzle-piece logos of Autism Speaks. "To be able to use your platform to make a statement about something you believe in is huge."
The cleats can be so personal as to convey not just a cause, but a loved one impacted by that cause:
Smith has his nephew Aiden, who has nonverbal autism.
Long-snapper Garrison Sanborn has the name of a cousin, Jenna, who died in 2013 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has his mother Tasha's name on his cleats, which support all families battling leukemia, as she has in the past year and is now in remission.
What's bigger than one name on your shoes? How about 200? Special-teams captain Josh Robinson's cleats promote Sacred Selections, which helps with adoptions in Christian homes. The shoes have the names of 200 children who have been adopted, including one who attends the same Tampa church as Robinson.
"The emphasis is putting kids in good homes. For my wife and I, it's something near and dear to our hearts," Robinson said. "This is an opportunity to show what you care about."
The Bucs' biggest players have gotten involved —- quarterback Jameis Winston's blue cleats support both juvenile diabetes awareness and his new Dream Forever Foundation.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who loves comic-book superheroes, has cleats that pay tribute to single-parent homes.
"I went with this theme because me, personally, I believe that single parents are the real superheroes," McCoy said. "It's not easy. I grew up seeing it my entire life. I've seen the struggle ... I just wanted to raise some awareness and show them that I care and think about them."
The colors of the cleats go all over the rainbow — linebacker Cameron Lynch is pairing with teammate Lavonte David to support Big Brothers Big Sisters, but made his cleats orange as a nod to his college days at Syracuse. There's a tiny orange on the heel -— much like on the yellow cleats of rookie tight end O.J. Howard, who is promoting his own Got Da Juice Foundation, which gave backpacks loaded with school supplies to 300 children this year in his hometown in Alabama.
"(It's) a very positive initiative that allows the players to draw attention to their various causes," coach Dirk Koetter said Wednesday. "I think our (community relations) department did a great job. They got in front of it early ... I know some of the guys were breaking their shoes in today. It's a cool deal."
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Players who don't yet have charities of their own can be inspired by others. Lineman Caleb Benenoch grew up with his father traveling as a minister for much of the year, so in appreciation of his mother, he chose Warrick Dunn Charities — the former Bucs running back has helped put more than 150 single mothers into their own homes.
"My mom had to take on a lot of responsibility, and seeing how she struggled and what she had to do makes me want to help people in that situation," Benenoch said. "(Dunn) does amazing things. It's a uniform league with a lot of rules and regulations, but it's cool when you get to show your personality and express yourself on Sundays."
Bucs players take a lot of pride in the campaign, but if you think the whole sideshow is for the birds, you're not alone. Offensive lineman Mike Liedtke, an avid hunter, has cleats that promote "Pheasants Forever," which promotes "conservation of pheasants, quail and other wildlife." If the shoes seem impressive, he'll proudly show off his right arm, which has an ornate tattoo of a pheasant in flight.
"I've been hunting with my dad since I was a little kid," Liedtke said. "I'm big into conservation and things like that. A lot of guys are doing great causes, and I figured I don't want to do something somebody else is already doing. I might as well do something a little unique."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.