When elementary school teacher Ronda VanSickle was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer a year and a half ago, she made the conscious decision to live a life of optimism and inspiration. On Wednesday, with the help of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, she and her family created memories they will never forget.
In coordination with the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, she requested a special outing that any group of boys would relish: a family trip to visit their favorite NFL team. That's where the Buccaneers came in, which made the trip somewhat unique: the VanSickles live in Lee's Summit, Missouri (a Kansas City suburb) but their favorite team plays in the Bay area.
On Wednesday, the VanSickle family arrived at One Buccaneer Place as special guests of the Buccaneers, smack dab in the middle of the team's training camp. They were quickly welcomed right into the hustle and bustle of a typical day at camp, providing exactly the sort of experience Ronda had hoped for.
"It's just a dream come true," VanSickle said. "It's amazing to be behind the scenes and see what the players go through every day. This is special for us."
After arriving at team headquarters and receiving a collection of team gear, the family was escorted around the facility, getting an inside look at the Buccaneers' daily operations. Stops at the team meeting room, press conference studio, weight room, players' lounge and locker room allowed the family to walk the very same steps that Ronde Barber and Josh Freeman take on a daily basis.
Freeman's daily routine was of particular interest to the VanSickle clan, who hail from the same part of the country. VanSickle and her three sons – Alex, Austin and Blake – have been long-time Buccaneer fans and they also began following Freeman during his playing days at Grandview High School, not far from their hometown. Tampa Bay drafted Freeman in the first round in 2009, giving the VanSickle family another reason to root on the Buccaneers, and to thoroughly enjoy their trip to the Bay area. One of the highlights of the day came just after the team's practice in the morning, when Freeman came over to the sideline to spend time with the family.
A physical education teacher at Summit Point Elementary School in Missouri, VanSickle has continued to lead an inspirational life while fighting her deadly disease. Along with raising her three sons, she has helped raise awareness for the fight against cancer, finding occasion to speak on the importance of fundraising and cancer research,
VanSickle is also in the process of finishing graduate school, while at the same time ensuring her children continue their academic and extracurricular pursuits. Austin, who has been nationally recognized as a college prospect at tight end/wide receiver, and younger brother Blake, will play together this fall on the Lee's Summit West High School football team.
Everyone in the family is aware of just how precious their time spent together is. Special occasions like the trip to One Buc enhance those remaining moments.
"I don't have words to say how meaningful it is for me," VanSickle said. "It's probably the last time we will have together on a vacation, so it's very important. I try to instill a lot of those last-minute things that boys need to know because I might not be around later on, so we use all this time together."
Ronda's family got to meet many of their favorite players at the end of practice, braving a light rain to do so. After Freeman signed autographs and relived memories from his high school career with the VanSickles, tight end Dallas Clark took the family aside and offered advice and encouragement during this challenging time.
"He shared a lot of things that will help my boys," she said. "It's great to talk to Dallas and see how his journey was and how he felt about the things that happened in his life."
The family also met with Head Coach Greg Schiano and General Manager Mark Dominik, both of whom praised the visiting family and the Jack & Jill Foundation for their efforts in giving back and connecting with families who are battling cancer.
"My hat is off to the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation," Schiano said. "They are thinking about people that get lost in the shuffle and the families of people that are very sick. For us to be able to provide a family a memory like that, it's everything."
The foundation, initiated in 2006, works to ensure that families like the VanSickles experience unique vacations to take their minds off of the daily mental, physical and emotional challenges that accompany late stage cancer.
As a final treat to the day, the visiting family enjoyed lunch in the team's dining facility and were joined by linebacker Adam Hayward, who lost his own mother to breast cancer in 2004 and has become a major advocate for cancer awareness and research.
"It feels awesome to share my experience with them," Hayward said. "I feel that is why God has put me in this situation, and I told them things I wish people had told me. Unfortunately I didn't have someone to help me and I didn't go down the right path at first. After talking to them, I know they will do things to make their mom proud."