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Bucs center Ryan Jensen creates a little daylight for paralyzed veteran

Army veteran Geoff Hopkins, 55, in center. (Dirk Shadd/Times/TNS)

Three full decades in a wheelchair have rendered Geoff Hopkins far more self-determined than sedentary.

A married U.S. Army veteran, Hopkins has gone skydiving twice since the 1988 motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. He also has been snow skiing and water skiing. For the last 20 or so years, he has indulged his passion for hand cycling, getting his 11- and 5-year-old sons involved in the sport.

“It’s just basically bicycling, but it’s just using your arms,” said Hopkins, 55. “And for me, I use my arms and a little bit of muscle in my chest and back, but I don’t have, like, abdominal muscle.”

Which isn’t to suggest everyday life is devoid of maddening nuances. Hopkins often drops his car keys and becomes a bit anxious around large groups. To this day, he still occasionally falls out of the wheelchair.

“I think it’s just because I’ve been in the wheelchair for 32 years and I don’t pay as much attention to it anymore,” he said. “I’ll go over to pick up something off the ground, and I’ll fall out.”

Hence the longtime desire — if not need — for a service dog. Trained to keep loiterers at a distance and frustration at a minimum, such a companion also would help fill the void created when the Hopkins family dog — a black-and-white border collie named Jasper — passed away last summer at age 14.

Thanks to Bucs center Ryan Jensen, a longtime benefactor of military members and their families, Hopkins’ wish has been fulfilled.

The grandson of a retired U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, Jensen recently footed the bill for Hopkins to get his own animal from Southeastern Guide Dogs, which has created more than 3,200 guide-dog and service-dog teams since its inception in 1982.

The organization relies solely on private donations to provide dog services to its recipients at no cost. Jensen’s scholarship supports the formal training and education of Hopkins’ dog, the instruction for Hopkins on the facility’s Palmetto campus, and the post-graduation support of the pair.

“It was a complete shocker,” said Hopkins, who has resided in Tampa nearly three years and attended his first Bucs game Sunday. “I had no idea any of this was happening.”

Jensen, the Bucs’ nominee for the NFL’s Salute to Service Award two consecutive years, deemed the gesture a natural extension of his service to the military community. The genesis of that benevolence occurred in 2014, when he met a 3-year-old named Cooper, whose father was killed in the line of duty before getting a chance to meet his son.

Bound in part by their long red hair, they developed a friendship and remain in touch once or twice a month. Inspired by that meeting, Jensen became involved with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which assists surviving family members of those lost in the line of duty.

Jensen also began distributing tickets to Bucs home games to military personnel and visiting MacDill Air Force Base with teammates. But he wanted to broaden his reach and connected with Sarah Evans, the Bucs’ senior manager of player relations.

“I was like, ‘I want to do something different,’” Jensen said. “‘I want to do something bigger than just the base visits and the phone calls. I want to do something that’s going to impact somebody’s life.’”

Which led him to Hopkins, whose existence was altered on a two-lane road in Huntington, W.Va., one autumn evening in 1988.

Raised in Maumee, Ohio, on Toledo’s southwest fringe, Hopkins envisioned from pubescence that he’d follow his dad’s footsteps into the Army. He served four years before embarking on his goal of becoming an officer and enrolling at Marshall University.

The evening of Sept. 15, 1988, he had just dropped his girlfriend of two weeks off at her home. Hopkins recalls removing his hat and stuffing it in his back pocket, putting on his helmet and hopping aboard his 1973 Honda CB750 motorcycle.

He remembers nothing else of that night. “But they told me I lost control doing about 45 mph, which was the speed limit,” he said.

“It was a two-lane road. I hit a guardrail around a little bit of a curve, not much of a curve. From the lane to the emergency lane, there was about a 6- to 8-inch dropoff, and they think maybe I went too wide and went down there and it threw me right into the guardrail.”

Hopkins suffered spinal-cord damage and a traumatic brain injury. He was transported from Huntington to a VA hospital in Richmond, Va., where he rehabbed until Dec. 23. Less than a month later, he began classes at Marshall.

“I couldn’t do it without my family,” Hopkins said.

“My mom and my dad and the rest of my family were there immediately to help me out. My mom signed me up for college, and off I went. They moved me into the dorm; I was on a floor with other people with disabilities. It was great.”

He ultimately earned a criminal justice degree at Marshall, then got a master’s in recreational therapy at Toledo. For the last quarter-century, Hopkins has worked in recreational therapy, working alongside other therapists (physical, speech, occupational, etc.) to assist veterans and active-duty service members.

“Yes, the service dog we’re providing him is going to be for his everyday (assistance), but also with him working … with Wounded Warriors, that dog’s presence is going to help more than just him,” Jensen said. “When Sarah told me his story, it was like, ‘Oh, this is a no-brainer, let’s do this.’”

Hopkins was informed of the gift by Jensen himself during a recent Zoom call attended by Bucs and Southeastern Guide Dogs officials.

“(Jensen) is such a young kid, in a sense; I think he’s what, 29 years old?” Hopkins said.

“And I understand that a lot of NFL players get involved in their communities, but not all of them do and not all of them do it to the extent that Ryan’s doing it. From getting involved with the (TAPS) and that young boy Cooper … and then going over to MacDill Air Force Base to visit with the troops, and now with me as a veteran.

“It’s exciting and really neat to see that he’s giving back to his community.”

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