TAMPA - One down, six to go.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed a few thousand of their most ardent supporters to the team facility Saturday for the opening practice of training camp. Despite a heat index that approached 110 degrees, an impressive turnout capitalized on half-priced concessions to greet players for the first of seven workouts open to the public.
"They've got to take advantage of those limited opportunities to see us,'' said veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. "I think everyone's ready for football. We love them as much as they love us. I know they'll support us through whatever we're going through and they'll be happy for it in the end.''
On the far side of Field 3, Diane and Frank Nist of Venice looked on from the shaded stands as the 2010 Bucs practiced in pads for the first time.
"We got to see a lot of variety out here this morning,'' Diane said. "I've seen a little more interaction with the players. I understand what the Bucs are trying to do with the rebuilding plan. Patience is a virtue, but I'd sure like to see 'em win sooner rather than later.''
Frank Nist said the start of training camp included a personal highlight.
"I had a chance to get a picture taken with the cheerleaders,'' he said. "We're real hopeful for the season. I'd love to see 8-8. That would be awesome, especially with so many new players.''
The lure of another Buccaneer training camp was more than enough motivation for Mark Whitten to make another 580-mile trek from Charlotte to Tampa.
Whitten, 42, grabbed a front-row seat in the bleachers Saturday, accompanied by his 17-year-old son Andrew, to watch his favorite NFL team practice in searing heat and humidity.
"I figure we're good for six wins, but I'd like to see nine,'' said Whitten, a former St. Petersburg resident who proclaims himself the head of Charlotte's fan club for the Buccaneers. "I like the draft class and I like Josh Freeman, although I wish we had a veteran quarterback to teach him. In my opinion, a lot of last year's problems were coaching, especially in that first Atlanta game.''
Whitten revealed his allegiance to fellow Buc fans with a poster that described his journey:
Charlotte to Tampa: 10 Hours.
Training camp tickets: $2.60 a gallon.
Watching the Bucs: Priceless!!
Whitten said he has been a Buc season-ticket holder since 2001, but he doesn't attend every game at Raymond James Stadium. Living in Charlotte, he won't be affected by the NFL's blackout rule if Tampa Bay's home games aren't televised locally.
"Since Malcolm (Glazer) got sick, I think the Glazer boys have been more preoccupied with Manchester United than this football team,'' Whitten said. "I'm staying with the Bucs. They're my team and you go down with the ship. When they lose, you can see the wagoneers leave.''
Coach Raheem Morris will miss the enthusiasm of Buc fans once public practices end in a week.
"These are true-blue Buccaneer fans,'' Morris said. "These are the guys that love Buc football. They were here with us through tough times and they've been with us through great times. They love to see the young players, they're excited about the stuff that's happening and they're here to see us have success. They love it and we love for them to come.''