Bucs T Jerry Wunsch enjoys a game at Pop City with one of his many reunited friends Thursday
Only minutes after a quick lunch of hot pizza was formally inhaled, Kim Cullens had latched on to her friend, Kayla Cutijar, and the two were taking in the full-tilt lights and noises of Pop City in downtown Tampa.
Kim and Kayla wound between the flashing lights of the video games, the hulking figures of several National Football League players and the television cameras circling the place. They smiled and laughed, but nothing phased them much, not even a camera crew stopping to get their thoughts on the event they were attending, Jerry Wunsch's Circle of Friends Reunion Trip.
Kim, well-spoken, bright-eyed and intelligent (as is Kayla), described many wonderful aspects of the reunion, but summed it up best when she referred to the other 50 boys and girls in attendance. Said the 11-year-old with a shy smile and a way with words: "This is a chance to see old friends and also to make new ones."
Perhaps it is her ongoing battle with cancer that gives Kim perspective. Her friend, Kayla, is engaged in the same fight. In fact, most of the dozens of kids excitedly scampering around Pop City on Thursday afternoon were pediatric cancer or leukemia patients brought there by Wunsch of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Grant Wistrom of the St. Louis Rams. Cancer wasn't really the issue on Thursday, though; nor was it 'perspective,' 'maturity' or 'introspection.' Thursday was about one thing: fun.
"A lot of fun is going on here at Pop City today," said Wunsch, the big offensive tackle with the jumbo-sized soft spot for kids in need. "These kids have given me a perspective on life that has rejuvenated me. They've taught me to live life to its fullest. There's another time when you can rest. We spend more time together having fun, living it up and appreciating each other and the people around us. I wish more people would not get caught up in the small things and learn to appreciate the simple things in life and take advantage of what they do have. That's exactly what these kids do every day."
Beginning in the winter of 1998, just after his rookie season with the Buccaneers, Wunsch formed the Circle of Friends and began taking pediatric cancer patients on therapeutic trips to the winter wonderland of his home state, Wisconsin. Two years ago, Wistrom, who had befriended a young man battling cancer during his college years at Nebraska, joined the trips after asking a Rams' community relations representative for help finding a program of this type.
That means once a year Wunsch and Wistrom are immersed for a week in the joys of dozens of new and old friendships. Turns out, that's not often enough.
Thus, the Circle of Friends has taken to holding summer reunions in Florida, which also gives the kids in the program from St. Louis, Wisconsin and Atlanta a chance to take another exciting trip.
"We bring them down here to a different environment and they get to see the ocean and other new sights," said Wistrom, who attended the Pop City get-together along with his brother, Bucs rookie tight end Tracey Wistrom. "I'm more of a beach person anyway, so this is right up my alley."
The Circle of Friends buses pulled up to Pop City just before 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, spilling the 50 kids inside where they somewhat shyly grabbed tables together for lunch (Wunsch insisted on lunch first, figuring the children would get so enthralled in Pop City's games that they'd forget to eat). Any anxiety had worn off in about 15 minutes, however, and as Kim had predicted, old friendships were rekindled and new ones were born.
"This feels phenomenal," said Wunsch, gazing around at the sprawling activity. "It's just good to see the kids again. We're all back together. For some of us, it's been two years since we've seen each other and then for some it was earlier this winter. We'll get back together and get to enjoy one another and have another fantastic time."
After lunch, Wunsch Family Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Maza circled the room distributing tokens to the kids, with Wunsch putting an endless stream of dollars through the change machine. After two hours at Pop City, the group headed back to the hotel; from there, it was off to St. Petersburg Beach for three more days of fun, including such activities as beach volleyball, arts and craft sessions and Laser Eclipse Tag. Later the group was scheduled to head back to Tampa for a trip to Busch Gardens.
Wunsch and Wistrom are in the last lull of the offseason before their respective training camps kick off and football becomes a central focus once again. This is the perfect opportunity for the two to gather their diminutive friends around them, but it is not intended as an isolated event. Wunsch, whose foundation now has its own office in Tampa at the Children's Cancer Center, is attempting, with Wistrom's help, to take the program league-wide. He has obviously found one of his life's callings.
"I'm involved with the kids all the time," he said. "It's something that I live, not something I do just occasionally. We work on a day-by-day basis with these kids – coordinating, talking with them, finding out how they're doing, going to the hospital when they're there, helping to take care of their families – trying to make a difference. This isn't something that I'm feeling just today, it's something I do every day. It's just on events like this that we allow people to come in and see what we're doing."
Cancer entered Wunsch's life almost six years ago, just before he came to Tampa to play for the Buccaneers. He lost a loved one to the disease, which drove him to use his resources to help others with cancer. The kids he has befriended through Circle of Friends have helped fill that void of a lost loved one many times over.
"I saw how it touched our family and I knew I had to make a difference," said Wunsch. "I vowed that I would, and I've started to do that. We're stepping it forward every year, trying to make it bigger and better for the kids, do more things and try to give them a chance to live their lives to the fullest. That's how they are – full-tilt. They're great kids, and Grant and I try to do as much as we can for them. All our hard work and time that we put in, coordinating and raising funds, all comes down to a weekend like this."
And to the smiling faces of Kim and Kayla, young but wise. Wunsch and Wistrom look at those faces and want to bring joy to as many children battling cancer as they can.
"We have a lot of contacts in the NFL and this is something that could spread throughout the league, and it should," said Wistrom. "It's such a great program. Anybody that could see this, how much fun the kids have when they're on these trips, wouldn't hesitate to join up with us."
For more information on the Circle of Friends program or the Wunsch Family Foundation, please call Stephanie Maza at 813-356-1147 ext. 237.