JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Like most players, Blake Bortles will keep items to remember moments from his football career.
A jersey signed by a teammate. A game ball or helmet. Maybe a pair of cleats he wore in a certain game.
None of those things, however, will mean as much to the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback as the folded United States flag encased in a shadow box and several military patches that sit in his locker. They were gifts from Sean Karpf, one of the team's strength and conditioning associates and a U.S. Army veteran who lost his lower left leg while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2012.
Karpf gave them as a thank you for the Blake Bortles Foundation's work with first responders, and Bortles is still humbled that someone who deserves to be admired and thanked by the nation for his sacrifice would do that for him.
"It's an American flag, which to me at any time is pretty cool," Bortles said. "I think that's special at all times, but to have it come from him, that was really cool to me. The respect that I have for him is out of this world and what he's done, the adversity and obstacles he's overcome, the passion that he has for what he did for this country -- that was a special moment to have him hand me that."
Bortles isn't the only Jaguars player to receive a flag. Karpf gave one to nearly 20 players last December -- he purchased the flags and shadow boxes, and he and his wife folded each of the flags. The recipients included defensive tackle Malik Jackson, defensive end Calais Campbell and linebacker Telvin Smith. Karpf was finishing up a yearlong internship with Jaguars strength and conditioning coordinator Tom Myslinski and wanted to thank those players, especially those who are involved in the Jacksonville community and the military.
Veterans and military families in the Jacksonville area are among the groups helped by Jackson's non-profit Malik's Gift Foundation, for example. Campbell's CRC Foundation is dedicated to teaching critical life skills to youth, and among the group's events is a night of Christmas shopping at a Jacksonville-area store. Smith partners with the Boys & Girls Club to hold a free football clinic at the Jaguars' indoor practice facility.
Those are just a few ways the players are involved in the community, and Karpf -- a Jaguars fan who attended high school in a suburb of Jacksonville -- wanted to find a way to show his appreciation for what they've done.
"These guys have whatever they want [and if not] they can go get it, but I thought that would be something cool that they could at least remember me by, and it was a way of me thanking them for everything they did around the Jacksonville community," Karpf said. "I grew up here in Jacksonville and love the community and I love my city and just wanted to give them something to thank them.
"All the guys that received them were like blown away. You could tell that it meant something to them that I was thinking of them."
It certainly did to Smith, who admitted he was choked up because he felt overwhelmed by the honor.
"That was humbling, to know we do this physical game and we say we'll lay it down and lay our lives down, but then you look in the face of a man who really did that and stood on that, so I think for him to see something in you after he legit laid his life down for something and wants to honor you by giving you a piece of that, that's the utmost respect that someone in his position can do," Smith said. "I did [get choked up]. It was tough, because you embrace it as a great thing and as a compliment, but then you understand the tough message behind it and how he got to that point, so when you think about that stuff and truly understand it and know him as a person, it definitely will get to you."
Karpf has given several players additional items. He gave Bortles some patches from one of his uniforms, which Bortles keeps in the lock box in his locker. He also gave former Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny one of the extra Purple Heart medals he purchased after he was awarded the medal on June 10, 2013, which was nearly a year after he was wounded while on patrol with the 82nd Airborne.
Karpf and the rest of his patrol were carefully moving through an area between two small riverbeds and clearing it of IEDs when one of the accompanying Afghani police officers noticed people getting on the roof of a nearby compound. Karpf and several others were in the middle of the patrol but needed to move up front to provide additional security.
As he was weaving through the path -- which had supposedly been cleared -- he stepped on the IED. Karpf spent more than a year in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and had more than 20 surgeries. He has shared the story of what happened with the team, so Posluszny balked a bit last December when Karpf gave him one of the additional Purple Heart medals because he thought for a moment it was the actual medal.
"He's like: 'I can't take this. I know what this is. I can't take it,'" Karpf said of Posluszny. "I told him, 'Look, I have my original Purple Heart. I wanted to give you this.' He's just one of these guys that when he was here I connected well with."
Several days later, Karpf walked into the strength and conditioning office at TIAA Bank Field and there was a Posluszny jersey draped over his chair. Not only had Posluszny signed it, he wrote Karpf a nice message -- and also a personal letter.
"I knew a person like that got it," Karpf said. "They understand the Salute to Service isn't just another thing that, 'We're going to wear a different shirt. We're going to wear this because it's this theme.' There's guys in that locker room that get it. That Salute to Service means a lot to veterans that the NFL shows their support for us."
Karpf apparently means a lot to the Jaguars, too, because the team decided to hire him as a full-time strength and conditioning associate at the end of last season. The day after the Jaguars' loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Karpf was visiting with players and staff to say goodbye because his internship was set up to end when the season did. He also had been an intern with the team in 2014 through a program with the Wounded Warrior Project and spent time in the IT, ticket ops, video and ticket sales/customer service departments, so he had a long list of people to visit.
He was nearly done when GM Dave Caldwell asked him to step into an office to speak with Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' executive vice president of football operations. After a moment of small talk, they asked him if he'd like to stay on as a full-time staffer.
"I still remember that moment," Karpf said. "Every detail. I came to clean out my locker and here I was getting told, 'No, go put your stuff back in your locker.'"
Bortles said the players were glad he stayed, too, noting that Karpf has a positive attitude, is always encouraging and calling him exactly the kind of person you want to help build an organization.
Karpf might not know it, but he has helped Bortles deal with the immense -- and sometimes brutal -- criticism he has endured over the past several years. That's why Bortles keeps the flag in his locker and the patches in his lock box instead of taking them home.
"Just having that flag that he gave me in my locker and those two patches that he gave me ... at times we get so caught up in the results and what people are saying about us and yada-yada-yada," Bortles said. "We're playing football for a living and getting paid to do it. This guy, for not a whole lot of money, lost his leg defending our ability and right to be able to do what we do.
"It totally puts it in perspective and allows you to see the big picture and understand that there's things a lot more important than playing football in this world."