Tampa Bay Buccaneer tailback Doug Martin makes his way into the open, just as he has done so many times this season. Striding three steps ahead of the pack, the young rushing star cuts to the right and makes his big move - from a long corridor on All Children's fifth floor into a hospital room with a special little fan awaiting.
Three floors above, Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson is about to display some nice hands - slapping five with a bubbly 9-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis, then doing the same with her excited 7-year-old brother as their grateful mother beams.
The two NFL newcomers normally maketheir mark on the football field. But right now, they are part of a large contingent of Buccaneer rookies paying a visit this past Tuesday to patients and parents - part of a holiday tradition that makes the day just a little merrier for kids and families in need of a boost.
It's one time they're happy to be the visiting team.
Their charter bus pulls up at 11:20 a.m. in the circular drive by the front entrance and, moments later, about a dozen first-year Bucs and a handful of Tampa Bay cheerleaders pile into the lobby. The only required head gear: red Santa caps - complete with the team's familiar pirate logo. The players don them immediately upon arrival, part of the game plan for spreading good will on their day off from the weekly NFL grind.
After a brief welcome by Stephanie Hall, Children's Miracle Network Director for All Children's, the 14th Annual Bucs Rookie Club visit is officially under way. The group splits into a handful of smaller squads to reach as many rooms as possible. And for the next hour or so, the focus for the big men in red will be more on Blitzen than blitzing ¬- more on Dasherthan dashing for daylight.
Passersby point and smile at the sight of the festive football entourage - accompanied by three carts that brimmed with stuffed toy bears inside Buc backpacks, cameras from the news media, Bucs and hospital, and a cadre of ACH escorts to facilitate the in-room meetings with patients.
The first stop is a room on the fifth floor where Buc spirit is soaring as if it's a sold-out Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Inside a crib, 6-month-old Evan lies calmly and comfortably after a nap, sporting a gray Buccaneer onesie for the occasion. There will come a day when the young heart patient will grasp the significance of what transpired Tuesday. But for now, the most thrilled individual in the room is little Evan's dad, Dan.
A die-hard Bucs fan, he can hardly believe the sight before him: Martin and standout linebacker Lavonte David - wearing protective yellow gowns and blue latex gloves ¬- grinning and waving at his son by the crib railing.
Every Sunday this season, Dan and wife Karen, who shares her husband's passion for the team, have dressed Evan in his baby Buc outfits, put on their own team shirts and hats and rooted like crazy for Tampa Bay. They watch on the hospital room TV when the Bucs are on the road or aren't blacked out locally, and listen faithfully on the radio when there's no game telecast.
"He's got more Buc outfits than not," Dan tells the trio. "In fact, his first outfit was a Bucs outfit." Karen, a nurse at Lakeland Regional, couldn't get off of work to be there for the memorable visit, but she made sure a few extra, newly washed team onesies were ready just in case a sudden change was needed. "We've got 'em lined up, ready to go," Dan assures his guests.
Martin, who became the Bucs' all-time rookie rusher three days earlier, wiggles Evan's bootie-covered toe. David, a leader of the defense, marvels at the baby's happy demeanor. And the two players who do battle on the gridiron each Sunday listen as Dan relates the many medical battles his infant son has been through.
Evan was born June 1 with a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which meant that the left half of his heart was under-developed and not pumping blood. An ultrasound identified the problem, so Dan and Karen knew they would be facing a difficult road. There were some frightening episodes along the way. But after two surgeries to re-route his circulation, Evan is doing remarkably well and beginning to thrive - even with a third operation on the horizon.
"He's a tough little dude," Dan said.
And a true Buc fan in the making. The erasable board in the front of his room contains his medical goals for the week, along with the scrawled phrase: "Meet Buc Players!" An autographed photo of former Buc running back Mike Alstott hangs on a nearby wall, while stick-on lettering adorns the window with the exhortation: "Bucs wins / Please Santa."
Dan makes some small talk with the players he never imagined meeting and will one day tell Evan all about. The group poses for pictures around the crib, and the players sign a Buccaneer football Dan has in the room.
"I appreciate you guys taking the time - I know you're busy," he says.
"No problem, just spreading some holiday cheer," the soft-spoken Martin replies.
Moments later, they're off to spread more with other patients on the hall, while Child Life director Kristin Maier leads Johnson to the eighth floor, where a 15-year-old boy waits eagerly in his bed. Johnson knows all about All Children's, having grown up nearby in Clearwater, and his outgoing personality makes him a perfect athlete ambassador to kids spending their holiday season at the hospital.
As the former Largo High School star nears the room, a nurse passing in the other direction - RN Mary Konyndyk - recognizes him and heaps praise on Johnson's mother, Shenique Harris, for something she'd read in the paper: how the mom makes her grown, NFL-playing son still do his weekly chores while living with her at his childhood home in town.
Johnson shares a laugh with Mary and then arrives at Tyler's open door. Instead of knocking, he peers playfully around the door frame to surprise the boy inside, at this moment sitting up in his bed wearing a No. 24 Cadillac Williams jersey.
Tyler, a quiet teen, loves football and plays in his back yard at home, but he's not able to play in school, due to his ongoing struggles with cystic fibrosis. The heavy mucus that forms in his lungs has limited his physical activity but not diminished his passion for watching his favorite team, the Bucs.
"How ya doin', Tyler? I heard a lot about you," Johnson begins, then hands him the bear and backpack.
"Here's a token from us to show how much we care about you," he continued. Johnson kept the conversation going, not shying away from talking openly with Tyler. He asks the youngster to tell him about his disease - and Tyler obliges. Johnson listens intently, then offers some words of support.
"They told me you're still able to interact with kids and run around and play football - in fact, I heard you go out three times a week to throw the ball around," he said. "I just want to encourage you to keep playing. And no matter what, whatever you're going through, just be active and stay positive."
Tyler's day has been made - and a few snapshots that follow with Johnson and Buc cheerleader Tricia are icing on the cake.
A few doors down, Johnson makes his next stop - the room of 9-year-old Leilani, another cystic fibrosis patient. The native of Oahu, Hawaii has a mega-watt personality and captivates her visitors from the outset. "Hi!" she exclaims, and enthusiastically accepts a gimme-five from Johnson. Her 7-year-old brother Keoni gets in on the high-five act, too, and each are momentarily speechless when Johnson hands them their gift bears.
"This is awesome! Mine is a football player," blurts out Keoni.
"Mine is a cheerleader!" announces Leilani.
Their mother, Sarana, can hardly believe the sight unfolding around her - a real-life Buc player interacting with her children. And seconds later, there are even more, as Martin steps into the room, along with free safety Sean Baker, defensive end Ernest Owusu and tight end Danny Noble.
This is quite a turn of events, indeed, for a mom who, along with her husband, worried that Leilani wasn't receiving the best care in Hawaii. "She was in and out of emergency rooms many times," her mother said. The parents researched the possibilities and Sarana was thrilled to learn of All Children's. "I saw that they had this great place for kids with cystic fibrosis," she said. What's more, her husband's family lived in Manatee County - an easy drive to the hospital.
"I knew that All Children's was exactly what we needed," she says. So the family recently picked up and moved 4,700 miles to St. Petersburg for Leilani to get treatment at ACH. "I'm so happy because she's doing better than ever," Sarana added.
She and her family watched the Bucs play on TV last Sunday but Leilani never imagined she would wind up meeting some in person. After posing for pictures, Johnson asks Leilana about life in Hawaii and tells her he hopes to visit there one day. But this visit is the one that matters right now.
"Leilana, I'm so happy to hear you're doing much better." Johnson says when it's time to go. "Happy holidays."
A final round of high-fives followed. And then in a flash, like the other famous guy in red who works on Christmas, they disappeared from view. They headed downstairs for the trip back to Tampa.
"This really puts things in perspective," Johnson recounts outside. "You give a little time and conversation and it changes their whole day. It's like the old saying: The more you give, the more you receive. And we got a lot from the kids."
Minutes later, the bus pulls out of sight - with a new class of Buc rookies perhaps feeling a little different about life, after a memorable trip making spirits bright.