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Tom Jones: Stars of 'Hard Knocks' premiere include Winston, McCoy, Bucs singing

Attendees enjoy a pre-screening reception at the Tampa Theatre for the premiere of Hard Knocks, starring the Bucs. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]
Attendees enjoy a pre-screening reception at the Tampa Theatre for the premiere of Hard Knocks, starring the Bucs. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Aug. 9, 2017

We know them as football players. But at the end of the day (and at the beginning and in-between, too), they are just people. First and foremost, they are people.

And if the HBO documentary series Hard Knocks, which goes behind the scenes of an NFL training camp, achieves anything, it shows football players as people.

Yes, we see them at work, where their moments are filled with competition, sweat and, sometimes, blood. But we're used to that. We see it on our televisions every Sunday.

What we're not used to seeing is how they spend the rest of their time away from work. It's there — away from the spotlight of the football field — where we get to see them as people. And we get to know them maybe just a little bit better.

We see them as doting fathers and loving husbands. We see them do regular things, like hanging at home or going bowling or fishing or even ballroom dancing.

These are the best moments of Hard Knocks. It's what makes the show so compelling. And, this year, it's even more interesting for those of us in Tampa Bay because HBO/NFL Film's show is following the Bucs.

The five-part series made its debut Tuesday night and, while we got to see cool practice footage, it was the stuff away from the field that was the best.

The show's star, unsurprisingly, was quarterback Jameis Winston and it only took moments into the first episode to realize that Winston was going to be a focal point. The show featuring the Tampa Bay Bucs didn't start in Tampa Bay, but in Bessemer, Ala., the home of Winston.

For those who don't know about Winston's upbringing, the program showed Winston's humble beginnings. In what was, by far, the most compelling part of the hour episode, Winston took cameras into his childhood home. He went into his old bedroom, which he shared with six others. The same bed, which once held Winston and two others, is still there.

Outside the house, Winston showed nothing but pride as he pointed to where men used to urinate when the bathroom was occupied. He also took time to point out a cockroach giving birth on the porch.

Real life. Real Jameis.

Quickly, and purposefully so, Hard Knocks jumped to the Tampa mansion of Gerald McCoy. This provided the most touching moments of the show. Say what you want about McCoy — and yes, he has his detractors — you only needed a few moments to realize what a good man he is. They say kids never lie and, it's obvious in how McCoy's children interact with their father, that McCoy is not only a proud father, but a good one. As he gave his twins a bath and then dressed them, you could see the kids' adoration for McCoy.

These were the highlights of the first episode, but not the only good moments.

The first episode of Hard Knocks usually has same formula. There aren't typically a lot of dramatic moments because there are no games, rarely any injuries and not much controversy. That develops the more we get into the preseason. So Hard Knocks must try to introduce the viewing audience to some of the characters they will see in the coming weeks.

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Clearly, Winston and McCoy will be among those and the charisma of both oozed through the screen.

But, without long and dramatic storylines, the first episode often has rely on moments.

And there were plenty of good moments Tuesday night, some from One Buc Place and some away from football:

• There was McCoy yelling, "Ahhhh, they gonna trade me!" after hitting Winston in practice, a no-no in the NFL. You never hit the quarterback.

• Hey, gotta be smart if you're an NFL quarterback. Well, Jameis is no dummy. He proved it by turning down everyday towel service at the team hotel so he can get extra Marriott points. Everybody loves extra hotel points.

• The interaction between coach Dirk Koetter and Winston was fascinating. They talk frankly with one another. And while Winston is the star of the team, there were moments when it's clear that Winston needs to get better. In one scene, Koetter stressed that, because the team around him is better, Winston must become less risky with the football. It also came as no surprise to see Koetter using two meaty expletives to chew out Winston for a bad play in practice. What followed was masterful direction, keeping the camera on Winston, who stood in eerie silence after being scolded.

• Can't talk about the Bucs of the present without acknowledging the past. Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden appeared several times in the first episode. Cool to see Gruden talking to Winston, Koetter and the coaches. Briefly. And then even cooler that Koetter wondered if Gruden missed the game. (I can answer that one: yes he does.)

Hard Knocks is known for three things: rookies singing, players being cut and, yep, the occasional No. 1 all-time swear word. We saw all three in the debut. We'll get to the singing and cuts in a moments, but let's get to the good stuff: Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken dropped the first bomb that Hard Knocks is known for and I'm guessing it will be far from the last.

• In every NFL camp, rookies have to sing. The Bucs are no different. The team's best singers? Well, there's Riley Bullough, an undrafted linebacker. But top honors go to wide receiver Chris Godwin, who did a very respectable version of Ain't No Mountain High Enough. He's not Marvin Gaye, but he ain't half bad. Also, a special nod to tight end and Quebec native Antony Auclair, who surely must be the first rookie in NFL history to choose the French version of O Canada as his song.

• There were a couple of player cuts, but nothing of note. Future shows will have more interesting ones.

• What do Bucs do on their off day? Bowl. Fish. Take dance lessons. Hot yoga. Play cards. Who knew?

• A shoutout to one of our own. Tampa Bay Times writer Rick Stroud was seen for several minutes interviewing Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson at Jackson's home, including asking whether Jackson was bothered by rumors of gang affiliations in this past.

• The most unexpected appearance was Snoop Dogg. Yes, Snoop Dogg. He was on Face Time with the Bucs' Jeremy McNichols, who was coached by Snoop as a kid.

• And, finally, nothing like a little cross-promotion. During the final credits, Bucs players, coaches and staff were seen talking about HBO's Game of Thrones. Looks as if McCoy is a big fan. Normally, HBO should be called out for such self-promotion, but who doesn't want to see McCoy talking about Jon Snow? Besides, everybody watches Games of Thrones.

So, what's next? The preview for next week hinted that we could see a little more off-field stuff, including the personal lives of Brent and Miko Grimes. I think I speak for the entire world when I say: Can't wait for that.

Hard Knocks is off a great start, but the next four weeks should get even better.

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