I arrived just before 7:00am. The crowds hadn't gathered yet and there was little activity on the field as I took my trip down the tunnel and onto the familiar grassy field. Nearly 8 years later and the deja vu was still overwhelming. I took a few steps and stopped to take it all in. I was 16 the last time I walked on this field. This town, this team, is where the NFL journey first began for us, nearly 15 years ago.
I still remember the fateful day my Dad called a "pow wow" in our Clemson, SC living room. Coach Dungy had just received his first head coaching job and he wanted Dad to join him to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Part of me wanted to jump for joy at such a wonderful opportunity for our dear friends as well as for Dad to take the next big career step. Sailing into unknown territory was regular in the Christensen household but this was bigger than any change yet. A whole new league.
I was so young then. 5th grade. I was still selling friendship bracelets at stands on the side of the road. When I think about all the emotions I experienced it's hard to remember how young I really was. But the journey was really only just beginning for us...
We played our first few seasons in the "big sombrero", a stadium that strongly resembled a tortilla chip if you asked me. The Bucs hadn't been good in so long that outside of Florida no one paid them much mind. Until us. The staff that would later disperse to fill so many positions in the NFL and grow increasingly known. Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, etc. A powerhouse staff that was about more than just football.
The legacy of those coaches, those players like Trent Dilfer, Dave Moore, Warrick Dunn, Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch - it lives on in titles, championships, trophies, rings, and even books. But it also lives in my heart. So many memories. Mostly good but some heartbreaks as well. They flooded me as I returned after what feels like a lifetime.
After proving the Bucs were a team of heart we finally got the support needed to see Raymond James Stadium be built. It was a huge accomplishment both for the team and the city. We were able to see Tampa into a season they hadn't dared to dream of in years - a season of winning. Coach Dungy said this past Saturday that when we came one of his goals was to see people wearing Bucs gear - and he did it. Later he would do much the same thing for the Colts.
I say that the return was bittersweet because as all good things must come to an end so did our time in the stadium. I think I've left a piece of myself behind with every team we've been with. You cheer your heart and soul out in those stands. Wearing yourself out physically and emotionally with the ups and downs of your team and in my case, your family. Leaving was a divorce.
The sweetness comes as I find myself back here so many years later. After leaving Tampa the desire of my heart still remained to be in this city. Though I don't foresee myself ever returning to the stands in my black and red... I walked on that field to once again be a part of something bigger than football. All Pro Dad. When it first started Coach Tony and Dad were the first coaches on board. As Coach Tony said Saturday, they spent so much time talking about how to parent effectively in the crazy industry they were a part of - they wanted to share some of those ideas with other Dads.
As the daughter of my own All Pro Dad this ministry will forever have a special place in my heart. I've been so blessed by what they stand for and their support of my family as we sought to put Family First in our own lives. So it was special for me to return to a Tampa event to see how it has grown. This weeks event was the largest to date (but don't doubt Indy will continue to give it a run for the money!). I felt so much gratitude Saturday that God has seen fit to answer my prayers and put me back in this city and that I could be there to witness the works of his hands of his servants at Family First.
Saturday was a great event and for those of you who didn't make it out, I hope you'll be there next year! : ]