TAMPA — Sunday was the Bucs' annual Salute to Service game at Raymond James Stadium, and the military was never more appreciated than after the victory, when receiver Cecil Shorts pulled the jersey off his back and gave it to Air Force Staff Sgt. Josh Ortega.
Ten days earlier, Shorts had reached into the stands and given Ortega the gloves he wore in the Bucs' loss to the Falcons, not realizing that the rubber wedding band he wears during games had fallen off inside. Ortega later found the ring, reached out to Shorts on Twitter with the good news and arranged to give the red ring back after Sunday's win over the Bears.
"It's the way I was brought up — you find something, you try to find the owner of it," said Ortega, 27, a lifelong Bucs fan who coaches youth football and is an assistant at his alma mater, East Bay High School. "I just did it because it was the right thing to do, but he surprised me after the game, took off his shoulder pads and handed me his jersey."
Shorts, like many football players, wears a silicone ring during games to avoid injuries that can come with a regular ring. But this had personal value to Shorts and his wife, Chanel. He realized it was gone after the game and called his wife, worried he'd never see the ring again.
"It symbolizes a lot, and means a lot, to not only me but my wife as well. … I happened to look on Twitter on Monday and saw that (Ortega) had hit me up. 'Oh, wow! That's awesome,' " said Shorts, 28, who had two catches for 38 yards in his best game since joining the Bucs in September.
Ortega has served three tours overseas in the Air Force and now works as a boom operator and flight refueler in the 927th Air Refueling Wing reserve unit. His best view of Raymond James this season? From directly above, as part of the pregame flyover from MacDill before the Bucs-Raiders game Oct. 30.
He has had memorable exchanges in the past with Bucs players. Last year, he presented defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and receiver Vincent Jackson with the U.S. flags that he flew in their honor during missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; they returned the gesture by giving him their game jerseys, even after a tough loss that day.
Ortega was stationed in Washington state until this year, when he moved back home to work at MacDill. He and his father, Frank, himself a former Marine, share four season tickets. They have been going to Bucs games together all his life, with an annual tradition of attending one road game each year, as they will at San Diego next month.
Shorts had asked Ortega to meet him in the front row, on the Bucs sideline near the tunnel where players come on and off the field, where he'd given him the gloves the previous game. Ortega didn't want anything for returning the ring, but Shorts insisted.
"I had to do something for him," said Shorts, who has three children with Chanel and a fourth due March 1, on their anniversary. "I didn't know he had it; he didn't know I knew it was gone. He didn't have to do that. It was very thoughtful of him, so I thought I should be thoughtful myself and thank him in some way."
Shorts also promised to visit Ortega's football team at East Bay.
"Him reaching out and saying he'd like to talk to the kids, that means even more to me than what the jersey represents," Ortega said.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.