When it comes to NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson, Army Staff Sgt. Mark Gelling and his son, Tyler, are super fans.
They’d do anything, go to any length, to meet him.
Even attend a fashion show.
The father-son duo were among the 300 people who showed up at Widefield High School — Jackson’s alma mater — April 13 for Fatigues to Fashion, a benefit for Jackson’s military charity.
“This is an honor,” said Mark Gelling, who sported his combat uniform and beret.
Jackson, a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, launched his nonprofit, the Jackson in Action 83 Foundation, last year with the goal of providing families of deployed troops with resource guides, books and recreational opportunities to help them cope.
It’s a cause that’s dear to his heart.
Jackson grew up in a military household.
His mother, an Army administrative specialist, left the service shortly after Jackson was born. But Jackson’s father, a medic, served in the Army for 21 years.
The military brat who became a football star said he wouldn’t trade his upbringing for anything.
It allowed him to “explore different cultures, make new friends and keep humble,” he said during a break from signing autographs before the fashion show.
But the lifestyle wasn’t easy.
Jackson’s father was often away at training or working long hours. Though his dad didn’t deploy often, Jackson saw multiple deployments take their toll on his classmates and friends.
“I’ve seen it and have profound respect for the troops, and especially for the families and what they endure,” Jackson said. “You can’t forget about them, about what’s going on at home.”
Jackson’s foundation works to give military families education and tools to work through the trials of separation. One of the charity’s first projects is a children’s book, “The Home Front: Adventures of Danny DogTags.”
As Jackson walked down the runway — flanked by patriotic-colored star-shaped balloons, he let out a loud “hooah.”
“The military had a hand in my very existence,” he told the crowd, made up of fans, Widefield staff members and students, many with a military connection.
“What I learned from all my travels is that my roots are what make me.”
Jackson thanked attendees for helping the charity.
“Your donations are fuel for the programs we’ll offer for these military families,” he said.
Widefield High School senior Haley Fedor was one of several models who strutted on the runway.
Fedor, the daughter of a retired Air Force master sergeant, said she’s grateful to the military for giving her family the chance to experience life overseas.
But there’s a price for the perk: copious amounts of time separated from her
She remembers him deploying to Saudi Arabia when she was young and “coming back a stranger to me.”
“When he would leave, a wheel was missing from our car, so to speak,” she said. “We’d work as a team to drive with three wheels, but something was different, missing.”
The superfan Gellings left the Widefield High School auditorium with photos, autographs and new memories.
Before they did, they reflected on their 18 years as a military family.
The staff sergeant’s Army career has meant that the Gellings have endured frequent deployments.
When Tyler, 20, was young, he hardly saw his father.
The lifestyle forced Tyler to “mature at a young age and a lot faster” than most kids, he said.
Military kids like Tyler Gelling are exactly who Jackson is hoping to reach with his foundation, said Jackson’s mother, Sherry.
“He knows what it feels like to see dad go off and come back a little different,” she said.