The fourth year of the NFL's My Cause, My Cleats initiative takes place this weekend across the league. It's meant to bring awareness to causes near and dear to players' hearts with brightly colored and unique cleats that stand out on a football field.
And if there's one thing Bucs center Ryan Jensen has never needed help with- it's standing out. Whether it be for his aggressive play on the field or his fiery red mane, you know when Jensen is out there.
But it may actually be the latter that's inadvertently responsible for Jensen's chosen charity: TAPS, or the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that offers compassionate care to all those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces or as a result of his or her service.
Flash back a few years and it was 2014 in Baltimore. Jensen was just a rookie with the Ravens, and going through some growing pains having come from Division III Colorado State-Pueblo. He says he was actually on his way to getting cut, in fact. And a far cry from the starting center he is now. But along came an event with TAPS and with them, came a little five-year-old boy named Cooper.
"All he wanted to do was meet me," Jensen said of Cooper. "There was no reason to meet me, I had no clue why.
"But when I went over there, he had bushy red hair just like I did. From that moment on I knew there was a connection."
Cooper's father, Bubba, had been killed in 2009 while on active duty, before Cooper ever got a chance to meet him. After the pair's interaction that day, Cooper asked his mom, Nicki Pascal Bunting, if Jensen was what his dad looked like.
"About a year later, I saw him again at a Play60 event with the military at a base in Baltimore," Jensen, who was the Bucs' Salute to Service nominee this year, said. "When I met up with his mom there, she just mentioned how fond he was of me and it was a cool experience. Ever since then, we've kept in touch and I always try to do stuff with the military as is, so TAPS has just become another cool organization that I get to work with."
Jensen's cleats are bright red, white and blue with the TAPS logo inscribed along with Cooper's name. He sent a picture of them to Nicki and Cooper, letting them know he still thinks of them often. It's meant a great deal to Nicki, and most of all, to Cooper himself.
"I don't think I can begin to tell you what Ryan Jensen's connection with Cooper has meant to our family," Nicki said in a Facebook post. "He's just truly a stand-up guy and it's so wonderful to see Cooper build his relationship with him through the years. Ryan plays center […] just like Cooper. He has long, curly red hair, just like Cooper. And he's tough as nails, just like Cooper."
As if that doesn't seem fated enough, Jensen learned that Wednesday, the day he got his cleats and sent the subsequent picture to Bunting, was actually Cooper's father's birthday.
"I had no idea," said Jensen. "It was kind of a cool, meant-to-be day."
Cooper now wears #6 in youth football because he says he's 'half of Ryan Jensen,' according to his mom. Jensen has not only provided Cooper with someone to look up to on the football field, but off of it, like helping Cooper love his own red hair, for instance.
"So grateful for this bond," said Nicki.
Meant to be indeed.
Over 30 different causes will be represented this Sunday as Buccaneers players take the field in their specialized cleats. To view each player's chosen cause, visit https://www.buccaneers.com/mycausemycleats