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Kids give back to Wunsch, too

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


TAMPA -- The visual clues misled the casual observers at Thursday's off-season workout session at One Buc Place.

A group of children with cancer and sickle-cell anemia were in attendance, preparing to run drills with players before a cookout. They appeared to be benefactors of a charitable act.

Tackle Jerry Wunsch and his wife, Melissa, were the hosts -- or so it seemed. Wunsch annually sponsors "Jerry's Journey," a five-day ski trip that takes young cancer and sickle-cell patients to his hometown of Wausau, Wis. This weekend he is sponsoring a reunion for children who made the first three trips.

But Wunsch said this gathering is as much a treat for him and Melissa as it is for the 42 children, who are from Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin and Georgia.

"Believe me, they're there for me just as much as I'm there for them," Wunsch said. "That's the best part about it. I thought that I would be helping these kids out, but in return, I truly help myself. And I know my wife feels the same way."

Events for the group included nighttime volleyball on St. Pete Beach and trips to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Busch Gardens.

For Melissa and Jerry, and other Bucs officials who have helped coordinate the "journeys," the three days of talks, tours and fun have been uplifting. Wunsch said it is awesome to see the children smile and that many are healthier than they were when they made their ski trip.

"Me and my wife, Melissa, missed them," Wunsch said. "Everybody who has helped coordinate this missed the kids, and we wanted to see them again.

"Hopefully, we'll get to a point where every other year we'll have a reunion tour and we'll bring everybody back."

The idea for the reunion gained momentum at the funeral of Chelsea Brewer, one of the children who made a ski trip. Pictures of Chelsea on the trip were displayed at the services, and that made the Wunsches realize how much the trips mean to the children.

Wunsch pays for the majority of the activities. What he gets in return is immeasurable: "If every adult understood life like these kids do, this world would be such a better place."

RETHINKING RETURNS: Plenty of discussions have been held about the offense's enhancement with the additions of coordinator Les Steckel, linemen Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel, and receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

But another area coach Tony Dungy wants to improve is kick and punt returns. Dungy said that every year he has been in Tampa Bay, the returns have started the season slowly. This season the goal is to put returns on the level with the kick coverage, punting and field-goal units, which are among the league's best.

"We would like to create some field position with our return game," Dungy said. "We've got returners that can do it. We just have to stay away from penalties.

"We have to be a little more consistent in what we're doing."

Dungy will try to peg specific players for kickoff returns and punt returns. Last season the Bucs had return by committee with Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony, Karl Williams, Warrick Dunn and Yo Murphy.

"In the past, we've tried to say, "This game we're going to use Jacquez because of what we see in their coverage,' and then the next game we would go to Yo and then we would go to Karl because of the type of things we would set up," Dungy said. "And maybe we haven't let one guy get in the rhythm of returning.

"What we would like to do is audition them during the preseason, find a guy for each slot and go with them."

Though a host of returning players can return the ball, Dungy didn't rule out using a rookie. In 1996 the Bucs didn't discover that Williams, then a rookie, could return punts until the 12th game, and he ended up with one of the league's best averages, 21.1 yards on 13 returns. TOUGH TASK: Installing a new offense can be a long and sometimes difficult task, but it is more difficult for the Bucs, who are learning Steckel's principles while facing one of the league's best defenses.

Dungy conceded that the veteran-laden defense and him working as the referee during drills create a tough road for the offense. But the defense helps by using base formations and not experimenting.

"It's a little hard for them, but you want to put the offense in tough situations," Dungy said. "When they get better and when they can score and move the ball on our defense, we'll know we're in pretty good shape."

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