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Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jerry Wunsch Proving Himself a Warrior Helping Kids with Cancer

Aired July 4, 2000 - 1:29 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, here is a story about a role model, I'll tell you what. A professional uses his time away from the field to help some of his youngest fans.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jerry Wunsch is proving himself a warrior on a different kind of battleground. He helps kids with cancer.

And CNN/"Sports Illustrated"'s Jim Huber has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I imagine my life without all of you in it. But I'm so glad that I got to know you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've always had some friends ditch me, and I know because of all of you that you'll never do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've got a tumor in my head. They can't remove it, if they remove it, I'll die.

JIM HUBER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The circle closes and they become as one, survivors, joined at the heart, brought to this moment by the very large man and his wife in their midst, who can only hear their cries, feel their pain and hold them close.

JERRY WUNSCH, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: You want to be able to save their world and be able to do things for them but we can't do that. And I think that's the most frustrating thing for me. But to be there and to go through the emotions with the kids, to give them the hugs, to give them a shoulder to cry on is one of the greatest gifts they've ever given me.

HUBER: Jerry Wunsch is one of pro football's anonymous warriors, an offensive tackle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a man who spends his Sundays taking care of his quarterback, clearing holes for his runners. But away from the field his concerns are far deeper, for he and his wife Melissa work with pediatric cancer victims

MELISSA WUNSCH: The children, just to see them smile and be happy and the enjoyment they get out of just for a couple of days to forget about what they are actually going through and their illnesses more than you could ever explain. J. WUNSCH: They have made me very thankful for everything that I have. And when I see these kids hurting, it hurts me deeply.

HUBER: All you need to do is look in their eyes. The children and their new friends, explanation enough.

It began several years ago, when Jerry was introduced to cancer on a first name basis. His cousin's wife developed a fast moving melanoma.

J. WUNSCH: What I decided at that point is that I needed to make a difference if I ever got that opportunity. When I sat up with Missy for 36-some hours holding her hand, waiting for her last breath, I got a lot of soul-searching at that point.

HUBER: In 1997 he created something called Jerry's Journey, a five-day ski trip he and his wife sponsor for the kids. The last two years they've gone back to his home state of Wisconsin. In fact, when he and Melissa got married in February of last year, their Honeymoon was spent with the children, Jerry's Journey.

J. WUNSCH: The journey is not really in the fact that we are leaving and going somewhere. The journey is the experiences that we have once we get together. But even within that journey there's a journey about finding out more about ourselves and other people and confiding in one another, telling our deepest darkest secrets of how cancer has come and in some cases torn apart our lives, talking about, you know, what really bothers us, having someone to go to.

JUAN LUNA: I was, you know, so down that I really didn't want to be around. But during his trips, you know, he showed me that I do want to keep on going, keep on fighting this disease.

HUBER: After their third journey he decided to complete the circle and create a reunion where the children from past trips can meet in Tampa and spend some time together again.

M. WUNSCH: We just let them know that we are here, and we're here to listen to them, to help them any way we can, you know, get through it.

J. WUNSCH: Really what we teach them, is how to be weak, how to lean on someone else, to not keep it all on you. Because you can't do that, and these kids try so hard to keep it all within themselves and what we're here for is a support network. Nobody can do it alone, there's no one.

GREG HEEP: And usually everyone will think: aw, he's no good, he's no good -- I don't want to be friends with him. It's good to know that there's other people there that will be your friend.

AMY HECKENDORF: I love Jerry, I don't know, yes, he's the greatest guy I've ever met. And I wouldn't give up this experience for anything.

HUBER: Jerry's Journey would have continued unabated regardless, but when one of the children, a 13-year-old named Chelsea died, their sense of purpose took new meaning.

J. WUNSCH: There's no doubt after being that after being at her funeral, and walking through that line, and seeing all the pictures of all of the kids having fun and smiling, having a great time, and the bonds that we all made together, and being eventually buried with the Jer Bear (ph): the bear that we had given her when went to go see her; that we all needed to get back together and we needed to bond again and make those bonds stronger.

Those are things that obviously she cherished, and that's important to us. That's what it's all about and what we're here for is to make a difference in their life. And we know that we did that and that's what we'd like to do for all the kids.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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