TAMPA, Fla. The bus pulled away from MacDill Air Force Base, and Vincent Jackson settled into his seat pleased. This moment began a time of giving back, of honoring military members and their families who offer so much of themselves, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Pro Bowl receiver wanted to frame the night the right way.
Jackson looked ahead from his position in the middle of the bus, rush-hour traffic passing by. Everything about the gesture felt right. Two Air Force servicemen and their families, seven people total, joined him Friday evening in the Sun Sports Lightning Fan Express on the drive to Tampa Bay Times Forum, as part of an effort by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Jackson in Action 83 Foundation to honor military families at the Lightning-Winnipeg Jets game. To him, this was fulfilling.
"My foundation, Jackson in Action 83, is based on the military. That's what we do," said Jackson, who played in his third Pro Bowl last Sunday. "It's about the family. It's about deployment. Events like this this is exactly what we're all about. . I'm so happy to be in Tampa, man. It means a lot to me to really divulge myself in this community, especially with the military."
Friday night presented another chance to do so. The event was quite the feat, considering that logistics were pieced together within the past week: Jackson provided tickets to about 2,000 military personnel from groups such as the MacDill Air Force Base 6th Air Mobility Wing, U.S. Central CommandSOCENT, U.S. Special Operations Command, USO, Army Reserve Medical Command and Support Our Troops. Superiors at MacDill Air Force Base chose the two servicemen who enjoyed the bus ride to Tampa Bay Times Forum, where a red-carpet entrance awaited them after the 10-mile trip.
For Jackson, events like this are personal. He's the son of two military parents. His father, Terence, is a former 1st Sgt. in the medical field who spent 21 years in the Army.
That lifestyle brought Jackson to places such as Louisiana and Arizona, Germany and Colorado. The eight-year NFL player learned to cope with deployment his father toured in Panama when Jackson was young and he discovered how hard the strain on families can be.
"This is something that's home for me, being on these military bases and coming out to MacDill all the time, going to the military schools," said Jackson, wearing a blue No. 83 Lightning jersey. "This is what I grew up doing. These are people who I can relate with very easily. I know what they're going through. I think, sometimes, as much as we do appreciate the service they do over there as troops, sometimes their families get overlooked and the stresses and hardships that they go through when they have to be apart."
The Jackson in Action 83 Foundation was created, in part, to ease those stresses. Incorporated in November 2012, its mission is to help deployed adults manage the challenges of long-distance parenting. It strives to be a comprehensive resource for military families facing deployment.
In addition to Friday's event, the foundation has purchased tickets to Buccaneers games for military families. Jackson said he also hopes to work with the Tampa Bay Rays in the future.
"The thing about this foundation that is fascinating is that Vincent is hands-on," said Gregg Williams, a spokesman for the Jackson in Action 83 Foundation. "This is something that is near and dear to his heart. His family served. When we started this foundation, he told me point-blank, I'm going to be involved. Keep me involved.'"
The servicemen who arrived at Tampa Bay Times Forum on the bus appreciated the gesture. Soon after stepping off the red carpet, Corey Drouin, a senior airman with the 6th Maintenance Squadron, stood near his wife, Ashley, and smiled.
"Oh, my God. It was awesome," he said. "Once-in-a-lifetime, definitely. Nervous, you know? (There was) Vincent Jackson and the whole red-carpet thing going off it."
Nearby, Ryan Wheatley, a medic for the 6th Medical Group, waited with his family near an entrance eager to enjoy bonding time. Moments like this are rare.
"The kids are smiling. The wife is smiling," said Wheatley, joined by his wife, Marcie, and kids, Lauren (16), Gwen (14) and Logan (12). "Everything is just great, because you don't get this everyday. And it's just so much fun."
Yes, the night was about fun. But also something more: Reflection.
"We have a platform here as professional athletes, and we have opportunities to do things like this," Jackson said. "I think more guys should take advantage of it. I think it's so important for the youth to understand it, as well as the professionals to understand it, that you should give back to your community, that you should be part of your community and just appreciate people from all walks of life."
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.