PLANT CITY — They practice in lost Plant City, an abandoned ballpark haunted by the ghosts of spring trainings past. So it would have been a shame if at least a few of the Vipers came and went after their 10-game XFL season without experiencing the real thing.
The real Plant City, the Florida Strawberry Festival.
Which is why one local offered to accompany the Vipers to the land of shortcake and concerts.
It’s why a 6-foot-3, 320-pound center named Jordan McCray stood outside the Doughboy food truck on the midway, taking one bite of his deep-fried strawberry cheesecake and barely resisting the temptation to break into song.
“The first thing I thought of was this is probably a glimpse of what heaven looks like when you walk in, and then I realized we’re just in Plant City,” said McCray, a Miami native who went to UCF. He was one four Vipers players who spent part of their only day off last week at the festival.
“Everything here is just amazing.”
McCray, guards Jerald Foster and Andrew Tiller, and running back De’Veon Smith — who leads the XFL in rushing — walked around not known by name or stature. In the eyes of most festivalgoers, they were just big boys who could eat.
And there weren’t any hurt feelings when festival assistant director Rhett Rollyson had to explain who they were to some vendors. They were too busy taking in the sights, and the grub.
Full discloser: I am the concerned local who invited the Vipers to spend a day at Plant City’s greatest treasure. I’ve been covering the team the past month. After growing up in Lithia and making memories on those fairgrounds, attending country music concerts and learning to make my own decadent strawberry shortcake, it just felt wrong that they would miss the festival.
The four offensive players, who collectively weigh 1,197 pounds, careened through the crowd, unable to focus on one thing, as country singer Neal McCoy sang and the tangy aroma of turkey legs and the sweetness of deep-fried desserts filled the air.
It was all enough of a distraction until the players arrived at the festival’s epicenter, under the grand pavilion, home of the best dessert.
Smith, an Ohio native who went to college at Michigan, was looking down at his phone when he got a whiff of something he hadn’t quite smelled before. He looked up and stopped mid step, slowly took off his black sunglasses and let his jaw go slack.
“I haven’t ever seen that many strawberries before,” he said as he took in the display of flats of Parkesdale Farms strawberries sitting eight rows deep against a wall. “It just smells so good.”
The players made their way over to the strawberry shortcake buffet, where each one got one sponge cake base, a scoop or two of sugar-soaked strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream on top.
Within five minutes they were scraping their plastic spoons against red-stained plastic foam bowls, trying their hardest to get in one last taste. Then they were on to a folding table outside the Doughboy stand, lined with an array of every dentist’s worst nightmare.
Smith hadn’t even taken a bite of his deep-fried combination of Reese’s peanut butter cups and Oreos before Foster, a Nebraska native who played for the Cornhuskers, had nearly cleared by half a plate of funnel cake.
“I have to take a pic first. It’s too pretty to take a bite,” Smith said, chuckling. “Who would’ve thought we’d be here? Not me. Y’all need us to come back?”
As the players left a Polar Bear ice cream truck and started heading for their car, a man wearing a USF Bulls T-shirt and a Vipers hat noticed them. Johnny Peterson, a 34-year-old Plant City resident and USF alumnus, exchanged fist bumps and handshakes as the players balanced their ice creams in their other hands.
They thanked Peterson and his wife, Katie, 27, for attending the Vipers home opener, acknowledged the couple’s desire to attend the March 14 home game against St. Louis and accepted their apologies for missing Sunday night’s win over D.C. (it was too late to make the trip west to Tampa).
“It was great seeing the players involved in the community,” Katie Peterson said, “especially since they practice in town.”
It was a small moment that meant a lot.
“I can’t lie,” McCray said, “At first I was like, do I really feel like doing this on my off day? And now, if (the festival) happened every off day, I’d definitely be here.”