TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston became emotional when he was asked on Thursday how difficult it was to sit out Week 1 of the regular season because of Hurricane Irma.

He paused for several seconds, his eyes growing big. He looked up at the ceiling and shook his head.

“I went through a tough time watching,” said the 23-year-old Winston, whom his teammates and coaches have always referred to as the ultimate football junkie and one of the fiercest competitors they’ve ever come across.

But this wasn’t about football. He was having a tough time watching the news reports, seeing Hurricane Irma ravage the state of Florida.

“I really wasn’t thinking about myself,” Winston said. “I was thinking about what we were going through, what the people in Florida were going through, and what the people in Houston are going through. Because at the end of the day, everything is bigger than football. Obviously, I wanted to be out on the field playing, but sometimes you have to take that back seat and let things happen.”

Like the rest of his teammates and more than 6 million Floridians, he made the difficult decision to evacuate. There were too many unknowns with the Category 5 storm, which had already devastated the Caribbean. Forecast models projected it would make a second landfall on the Atlantic side of the state, but instead, it began veering toward the Gulf of Mexico.

“I was prepared to bunker down, but at the end of the day, my family’s safety — like a lot of Floridians — I think it was probably the best bet for us to get out of here,” said Winston.

He ended up driving home to Bessemer, Alabama, but he knew some players and coaches would be staying behind. He kept in close contact with them. He told wide receiver Bernard Reedy, who stayed in St. Petersburg to assist with evacuation efforts, that he and his family could stay at his house if they needed to.

“I know that we’re privileged to play this great game of football. I was blessed to be able to get my family out and back home. But … my thoughts and prayers were with everybody that possibly was affected by it. It’s bigger than me.”

Like his teammates, Winston returned home to discover that the storm didn’t inflict as much damage on the Tampa Bay area as originally anticipated.

Some areas were hit harder than others, but for the most part, the Tampa Bay region was fortunate that most of the damage came in the form of fallen trees, downed power lines, loss of power and minor flooding. Others weren’t so lucky. There was a 7-year-old girl in nearby Polk County who was killed from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator left inside her home on Wednesday.

As of Thursday morning, the death toll had risen to 31 people across three states — 24 in Florida — and 69 between the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Winston is still searching for the best way to help as many people as he can. That’s one area where football can really come in handy — boosting the morale of the community.

“A lot of people in this city are having some troubling times right now,” Winston said. “It’s exciting that hopefully this team can be the ‘giddy-up’ for people affected by the storm.”