Despite dismal weather, NFL theme park draws thousands
During opening day the most excitement comes from fans at the players' competition.
|[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Matthew Zwolak, 4, gets help Saturday adjusting his oversized helmet at "Gear Up and Go," an NFL Experience attraction where kids suit up and hit practice dummies.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
TAMPA -- From the stands, watching mountain-thick NFL stars pit their muscle against the weight rack, it was easy to feel puny.
"I would never go up against them, even if they get old," said Jermaine Thomas, 15, cheering for the Bucs' Warren Sapp as he struggled with 385 pounds on the incline press.
"You get more respect when you show you can lift that much weight. It's a man thing."
Thomas, in the company of teens from a local Boys and Girls Club, was watching the popular players' competition Saturday on the opening day of the NFL Experience, the 20-acre interactive theme park accompanying Super Bowl XXXV.
Despite morning rain and chilly weather that persisted into the afternoon, the NFL estimated that more than 10,000 visitors had come through by 5 p.m. David Newman, the league's vice president of events, said the park next to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday would honor unused tickets from Saturday, since the weather might have kept some people away.
At the park, the wildest screaming came from fans at the players' competition, which pitted six pros against each other in tests of agility, speed and raw strength. Sapp faltered at lifting 385 pounds, eclipsed by La'Roi Glover of the New Orleans Saints, who maxed out at 405.
For Jack Boughner, 64, of Tampa, it was a blunt reminder of the difference between common mortals and NFL stars.
"Just the sheer weight -- 405 pounds -- the average man's not going to do that," Boughner said. "There's really a gap there, isn't there? I don't believe the average man can take the hits a football player can. That's not the average man."
He added: "They make big salaries, but when they get my age, what are they going to feel like?"
Boughner came with his son, Larry Stanley, and his 10-year-old grandson, Blake. At the "Quick Release" football-throwing event, which measures how fast you can throw a football, Larry Stanley clocked his best toss at 39 miles per hour -- respectable when measured against others in line, but not pro-quarterback speed.
"It's a lot harder than it looks," Stanley said. "It's a lot of training. It's not just showing up on Sunday and playing."
His son, Blake, wearing a Bucs jersey, raved about the park. "It's all about football!" said Blake, who commits quarterback stats to memory.
Chris West, 10, who came from Riverview with his mom and his best friend, 10-year-old Frank Higgins, spoke in superlatives. "This is the greatest day of my life," he said. "This place is ripped so far. Ripped is way past cool."
"Football's not an easy sport," said his friend Frank, who had run the obstacle course. "I've been watching football since I was a baby." Both boys say they collect trading cards, "thousands of them."
Charlene West, Chris' mother, who works security at the theme park, added:
"They're like, "Let's do this! Oh, there's a line. Let's do that! Oh, there's a line.' There's going to be a line everywhere." Still, she added: "They're in the zone."
Among other attractions: an ESPN trailer in which visitors received free videotapes of themselves pretending to be sportscasters. Jeff Ladouceur, 37, who came down alone from New Port Richey, read off a Teleprompter while a camera captured him against a Sports Center backdrop. He said it was the fulfillment of a fantasy.
"I get to show my friends and everything," Ladouceur said. "It's worth coming just for this."
--Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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