T Jerry Wunsch relished the opportunity to reconnect with his 'Jerry's Journey' friends
Every February for the past three years, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Jerry Wunsch has put together a trip called 'Jerry's Journey.' Modestly titled but deeply rich in terms of caring and support, Jerry's Journey involves Wunsch and his wife, Melissa, accompanying pediatric cancer and sickle cell anemia patients on a five-day ski trip to his hometown of Wassau, Wisconsin.
The children who went on the first three Journeys came from the Tampa Bay area as well as Atlanta, Wisconsin, Idaho and Illinois. Wunsch originally chose the ski trip concept and the Wassau background in part to provide the Florida kids with an exciting new experience. On Thursday, many of those young travelers gathered for a reunion, but this time in Tampa, giving the kids from up north a taste of Florida's climate.
Dozens of Journey alums gathered at the Buccaneers practice facility on Thursday to watch Wunsch in action and then mingle with their hero and his teammates after Tampa Bay's workout. Later, more Florida favor was planned with a trip to Pinellas County for boat rides, swimming and a tour of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Wunsch's 'Circle of Friends' as he lovingly calls them, will also receive a behind-the-scenes tour of Busch Gardens.
It will surely be an exciting trip for all of the past and future friends, but for Wunsch it was a thrill just to see them again on Thursday.
"It's awesome," said Wunsch, repeating the word a second time. "Some of them have grown so much in three years. It's awesome. It's like you haven't seen a relative in a while."
Wunsch started this unusually personal endeavor almost immediately after entering the NFL as a second-round draft choice of the Buccaneers in 1997. He was inspired to his particular choice by the loss of a close family member to cancer earlier that year and has striven to expand the program ever since and to maintain in touch with the new friends he has gained. On Thursday, he gave those friends a glimpse into NFL life and was gratified to receive overwhelming support from his teammates.
Though Wunsch was eager for some quiet time to get reacquainted with his campers, he happily let them mingle with the dozens of Bucs that visited their private tent after practice on Thursday and helped conduct a special practice for the kids after the team had finished. "We'll get to spend more private time together later tonight," said Wunsch. "That's the best time, when we all get to sit around and talk. Today's a little hectic for them, a lot of people around. A lot of players are helping out. We don't get quality time together, but we'll do that later tonight. But I just wanted the kids to be around the guys and show them that there's a lot of good people out there. There's a lot of professional athletes out there that do care, especially with everything going on in the newspapers right now that's a negative for NFL football. This is a testament to the fact that the NFL is alive and strong and doing a good thing."
Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy also stopped by the tent to join in the camaraderie, and was moved by the gathering. "I think it's fantastic," said Dungy. "I had a chance to meet a lot of them before practice. Jerry Wunsch is actually organizing it, but a lot of the players are staying around to help him. It's something that we encourage, and our guys are fantastic about it. It just makes you more proud than winning games and winning championships to see what some of our guys are doing off the field."
Jerry and Melissa plan to continue their northern Journey each offseason, but now it appears that the reunions will become a regular part of the program as well. A recent event caused Wunsch to realize that he wanted to remain in the lives of his new friends.
"Chelsea Brewer passed away this past year, right before the Seattle game (on November 28)," said Wunsch, recalling one of his original campers. "I flew back and went to her funeral. When I went to her funeral, they had pictures of everything that we had done at our camps all over the place. She was buried with a bear that was from my wife and me. That was probably the biggest compliment of my entire life, when that little girl wanted to be buried with a bear that my wife and I gave her. When I saw the fun that she had, and how much she appreciated what we had done and the things that we had accomplished together, I knew that we had to get back together and we need to get back together often. We're going to try to do it every two years, bring everybody back and make this thing bigger and bigger."
Officially, Thursday's event was called the first 'Jerry's Journey Reunion', and that was more than a title; it was the perfect word, in Jerry's mind. The gathering of Jerry's Circle of Friends was like the rejoining of a family.
"They're like all my little brothers and sisters," said Wunsch. "I'm an only child, but they're the closest thing I have to brothers and sisters."