Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Snow Days

Jerry Wunsch, one of the Bucs’ critical free-agents-to-be, is currently in Wisconsin, at the center of a Circle of Friends

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Bucs T Jerry Wunsch and his wife, Melissa, make dozens of new friends every year during Winter Week

Jerry Wunsch is soon to be a free agent, and he's on Wisconsin turf for the next week. Red alert?

Fear not, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans, for your starting right tackle is not on an extended visit with the Green Bay Packers (Wunsch is not actually free to visit other teams until March 2, if he remains a free agent at that time). Instead, the massive NFLer is spending a week frolicking in the snow with several dozen of his closest young friends.

It's February again, which means the conditions are right for the fourth annual Circle of Friends Winter Week (formerly known as Jerry's Journey). Each year, Wunsch, a native of Wassau, Wisconsin, takes a group of pediatric cancer patients back to his home state for a vacation centered around winter sports. It's an opportunity for these youngsters to put their health concerns on the backburner for a week and discover the joys of skiing, snowmobiling, snowball fights and whatever other fun can be found in wintry Wisconsin.

"We're having an excellent time," said Wunsch. "We're headed out right now as we speak for a big, old sleigh ride out in the country and we're going to have some good, old fun. Today we did some downhill skiing and tomorrow we're going to try some snowmobiling and other activities."

This year, Wunsch has been joined in his endeavor by St. Louis Rams DE Grant Wistrom and a group of children from Missouri. All told, there are 30 kids on this year's Winter Week and, though the trip just began on Wednesday, they're already enjoying the experience of a lifetime.

"It's just a great old time," said Wunsch. "The kids are having a blast and so am I. Grant brought some kids this year, so we're doing the NFL thing. We've got another NFL partner and this thing is getting bigger and better. Everybody's making new friends. It's outstanding and it gets better every year."

Wunsch and his wife, Melissa, are singularly devoted to this cause, a dedication influenced largely by the loss of his cousin, also Melissa, to cancer during Wunsch's college years at the University of Wisconsin. He began this program in the offseason following his rookie campaign and has since welcomed dozens of young cancer patients into his immediate and lasting friendship. This annual trip is the highlight of the Wunsches' year, and it's a nice opportunity to put away football concerns for one more week before returning to business.

"When I start worrying about stuff like contracts, I figure those worries are small compared to what these kids have to worry about," said Wunsch. "It puts everything in perspective for me. Just to have an opportunity to spend a time with them, and have my family spend time with them, is awesome. We absolutely love the time we have together."

Still, the beginning of the 2001 NFL calendar year is just two weeks away and Wunsch will become an unrestricted free agent in March unless a deal is struck in the interim. Wunsch has started the last 29 Tampa Bay games at right tackle and, thanks to the stability he offers at that key position, may be near the top of the Bucs' to-do list for the offseason.

"I hope it works out," said Wunsch. "It would be a nice thing if it did. Tampa Bay took me in the second round and I do have some loyalty to them. Coach (Tony) Dungy has been an excellent person to me, not only a coach but someone you look up to off the field, also. It's nice playing for a guy like that. I'd like to play football for him in the future.

"It all comes down to: football is a business. We'll just wait and see. We haven't really heard anything yet. We're just going to sit back and see what comes our way. The man upstairs has a plan for everything and we'll find out soon what his plan is for the Wunsch family."

For now, though, the only plans Jerry and his adopted clan are concerned about are sleigh rides and cookouts. Earlier on Thursday, as Wunsch mentioned, the kids tried their hands at downhill skiing; on Friday, dog sled rides, cross-country skiing and tobogganing top the list of activities. There are also opportunities to stay warm with activities such as bowling, arts and crafts, movies and a formal dinner and dance. The travelers will return to their home towns on Sunday.

Next year, the Wunsches will gather up another group of friends and do it again. Wisconsin will once again be the destination. Hopefully, Tampa will still be the departure point.

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