For Jerry Wunsch, nominations for honors like the Byron
Jerry Wunsch, the soft-hearted offensive tackle who runs a community program called 'Circle of Friends,' has become intimately acquainted with the circle of life.
On January 14, Jerry and his wife, Melissa, welcomed the birth of their second son, Cade Logan, younger brother to 16-month-old Collin. Fittingly, the son of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' number 71 weighed seven pounds and one ounce at birth. More importantly, mother and son are in perfect health.
Though it surely does nothing to lessen the joy brought by little Cade's arrival, the Wunsches have also experienced loss in the last year. Their Circle of Friends program was created for pediatric cancer patients, and a few of their young friends lost their battles with the disease this past fall.
That is almost unavoidable when you form dozens of relationships with cancer patients each season, but inevitability does little to ease the grieving. For Wunsch, who has started 45 consecutive games at right tackle for Tampa Bay during three tight playoff races, football duties leave him little time to fully come to grips with his feelings.
"During the season, it's just a little bit harder because you're just so caught up with everything you're doing at work," he said. "When you find out, there's not much you can do because you're working such long hours. It's just something that comes with the territory when you're doing something like this.
"We know we're going to lose some children, but it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all."
Clearly, Wunsch has a lot of love to give, not to mention time, money and hard work. Every winter, he sponsors and organizes 'Jerry's Journey' for his Circle of Friends, a week-long trip to his home state of Wisconsin, where all manners of outdoor fun are pursued. The 2002 trip, which will also include Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom and a group of kids from St. Louis for the second consecutive year, is scheduled to begin on February 21.
One of the most tireless community workers among Tampa Bay players, Wunsch has begun to draw recognition for his good works. Most notably, he is this year's Buccaneer nomination for the extremely prestigious Byron "Whizzer" White Award.
Each of the league's 31 teams submits one candidate for the award, as voted on by the players themselves. The NFL Players Association, which considers the Byron "Whizzer" White award its most important honor of the year, will announce the league's overall winner during its annual awards banquet on April 5.
The award is named for the former NFL star who went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. Each year, it goes to the player who best personifies the spirit of Justice White's service to team, community and country.
Just being selected as his team's representative is honor enough for Wunsch.
"Any time you get recognized by your peers for anything, I think you have to feel proud," he said. "Those are the people that really know, the people that see you every day and work with you, the ones that really see what you do. That's the greatest thing, to get an award from your peers. To know that they respect you enough to nominate you for an award is awesome."
Wunsch's teammates and coaches also named him the winner of this year's Ed Block Courage Award. At the end of every season, each team in the league chooses one player who exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage and names him its Ed Block recipient. All of the winners gather together in March in Baltimore to accept their honors and visit with the children at the local Courage House at St. Vincent's Center.
The Ed Block Courage Award often goes to a Buccaneer who has overcome a significant obstacle, such as an injury or a personal crisis, to make an important contribution to the team. Though Wunsch thankfully avoided serious injury in 2001, his entire five-year career with the team has been, in part, a tribute to a lost loved one.
Just before the 1997 draft, during which Wunsch would be selected by the Bucs in the second round, he lost his cousin, also named Melissa, to cancer. He had visited Melissa repeatedly in the months after his senior season at Wisconsin, and was in the room when she died. The loss touched him deeply, forging in his heart a commitment to help others with cancer. Less than a year later, Circle of Friends was born and Jerry's Journeys began.
In addition to the White and Block honors, Wunsch was one of three Bucs, along with running back Warrick Dunn and safety John Lynch, to be nominated for the enormously prestigious NFL Man of the Year award. Last season, linebacker Derrick Brooks became the first Buccaneer ever to win that honor, sharing the award with Chicago's Jim Flanigan.
Like the White award, Man of the Year is designed to recognize not only a player's gridiron excellence but also his off-the-field community service.
With Wunsch, it's hard to tell which half of that equation gives him more pleasure. He and Melissa have formed the Wunsch Family Foundation, headquartered at the Children's Cancer Center, and just Wednesday they were set to raffle off a set of Super Bowl tickets, with the proceeds going to this year's trip. Every year, the Wunsches group of friends grows, and later this year they will organize a reunion trip in Tampa for 62 former Journey participants.
Even now, with a newborn surely occupying much of their time, Jerry and Melissa are hard at work organizing this year's trip. With Green Bay and Wassau, Wunsch's hometown, enjoying an unusually mild winter, they've already pushed the dates back by a week in hopes of encountering some snow. Whether or not Mother Nature complies, the Journey is sure to be a heartwarming experience for the Circle of Friends.
And that result, rest assured, will be a better reward for Wunsch than any award he might receive.