Tara, Bashaw students play like the pros

TAMPA — It’s nearly 850,000 square feet of nothing but NFL. If you want to punt, pass, kick, throw or run, all facets of football are at a fan’s disposal.

It’s the NFL Experience.

The Super Bowl has returned to Tampa, and Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals will face off in Super Bowl XLIII.

With the Big Game comes the NFL Experience, which gives fans a taste of what life is like for NFL players on the practice field and presents fans with an in-game atmosphere through more than 50 interactive games and attractions.

On Wednesday, it was a dream playground for more than 2,000 elementary school children from the Tampa area. They were sprinkled about on the lawn across from Raymond James Stadium, which has been transformed into central Florida’s newest theme park.

For many of them, it was the best attraction next to Disney World.

Local kids from Bashaw and Tara elementary schools made the hour drive to the experience.

“We got to live how the NFL players do in games,” said Emilee Perkins, a fifth-grader at Bashaw Elementary. “I watch NFL games sometimes. I like the (Tampa Bay) Bucs. I liked it when we got to throw the football, and they had to run and catch it. I never thought I would do anything like this.”

Kids participated in games like the “The Drive,” where they took part in resistance training as they struggled to score a touchdown while being harnessed to a bungee. Or the “Quarterback Challenge,” where fans displayed their passing accuracy on special targets, or “The Big Move,” where kids lined up across from a real blocking sled to get a taste of what it feels like to move an NFL offensive line.

And “Measure Up to the Pros” allows kids to measure their physical dimensions and athletic abilities against the superstars of the NFL.

The NFL Experience also features a 30,000-square-foot Super Bowl store, with more merchandise than a football fan can fathom. A year ago, taking part in anything that required strenuous physical movement was unimaginable for Briana Lutzi.

The Bashaw fifth-grader tussles with a severe case of arthritis in all of her joints and was confined to a wheelchair in February and March of 2008. She had to take a 40-milligram shot of steroids every day.

Eventually, she started taking baby steps, but even they hurt. The shots help to minimize the swelling in Briana’s joints.

Wednesday was a treat for Briana.

“It feels so good to be free and just run around again,” the 10-year-old said. “This was a really great opportunity to be here.”

The thousands of kids buzzing around the event earned the right through the NFL Play 60 national youth health and fitness campaign.

The program is centered on decreasing child obesity by encouraging kids to be active at least 60 minutes a day. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL players and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist got in on the fun.

Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard and safety Jermaine Phillips, along with players from the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, helped run the event. Gov. Crist and Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn and linebacker Derrick Brooks addressed the kids.

They were even treated to a concert by R&B artist Bre Morgan.

Brianna Arteaga, 10, of Tara Elementary, said she enjoyed the obstacle course at the NFL Experience. She got a shirt signed and met the governor.

“He was doing a speech thing,” Arteaga said.

Asked if she was tired after all that, she said, “Yeah!”

Tara Elementary was represented by 110 kids, plus chaperones. Tara Principal Linda Fouse said the big hit of the day was seeing football players. She said all the kids had a terrific time.

“They were so well-behaved,” Fouse said.

The day didn’t go so well for Zack Luallen.

Luallen, of Tara, said he participated in only four events before the kids’ playtime expired after 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Luallen is not a football fan. He only watches the Super Bowl for the commercials.

During the concert, the fifth-grader starting feeling sick. He said the loud sounds from the concert vibrated his stomach. Luallen stretched out on a lounge chair with an ice pack on his head and relaxed under a tent.

“When everybody started getting up, I guess it was too much body heat,” Luallen said. “When she was singing it was echoing in my stomach, and it felt like I wanted to puke. But I feel better now.”