TAMPA — Time was running out on Ryan Jensen. It was the final days of 2014 training camp, and Jensen, entering his second NFL season with the Ravens and still waiting for his first pro snap, knew he was about to get cut.
“I was kind of feeling sorry for myself,” Jensen said.
But then, the team brought in a group from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that provides support to those who are recovering from the death of a family member in the military.
A 3-year old boy named Cooper was immediately drawn to Jensen because they both had long red hair. Cooper had never met his father, who was killed in the line of duty.
“Ever since then, it kind of changed my perspective on everything,” said Jensen, now a Bucs center.
Jensen saw the boy again at a flag football event a year later and has remained in contact with the family.
When the Bucs host the Colts on Sunday, Jensen will wear custom-designed red, white and blue cleats with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors logo on the side. Across the front of the lower ankle will be Cooper’s name.
The NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign allows players and onfield staff members to wear cleats to promote causes close to them for one game each year. On Wednesday, players saw their custom cleats for the first time. Many of them began breaking in the shoes during practice.
“I’ve stayed in contact with Cooper and his mom throughout the years, and it’s just something that’s been pretty cool to do,” said Jensen, who signed with the Bucs before last season. “It’s awesome to be able to recognize him and his mom and his family and just do something cool for him.”
Since its inception in 1994, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has helped more than 80,000 surviving family members, casualty assistance officers, chaplains and others supporting bereaved military families. The organization on average reaches out within two weeks of a casualty notification to offer its assistance.
“Organizations like this just help that transition for families who have lost a father, a mother, a brother or sister. It’s important,” Jensen said. “The people who are doing the work they’re doing, it goes beyond helping people grieve. It helps them transition into the next stage of their life with losing a loved one. It’s the worst-case scenario for a military family, so the work they do to help is awesome.”
Jensen plans to give his cleats to Cooper after Sunday’s game.
“I’ve really seen him grow up,” Jensen said. “He’s almost 10 now. He’s playing football now. It’s cool to see someone I met six, seven years ago who I really didn’t think would have an impact on my life really grow up.”
Jensen’s family has deep military roots. His maternal grandfather, Keith Palmer, was an Army staff sergeant who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and received a Bronze Star for valor. Palmer’s son, also named Keith, served in the Marines. Jensen’s adopted brother, Alec Hatfield, has served two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Marines.
Jensen gives 18 tickets to military personnel to attend Bucs home games through his Jensen’s G.I.’s program, and he has taken part in several trips to MacDill Air Force Base with his teammates.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.