By Matt Petrero
Perception is a fickle thing. We see famous people on television or hear them on some form of audio format and we formulate an opinion of them as if we know them well.
Frankly, this perception is often fostered and cultivated by the media. You may ask yourself, “why?” The answer is simple. Drama and negativity sells. I rarely hear people make the distinction between “he’s/she’s a…” and “he/she seems/appears to be…”
Such is the case as it pertains to New York Giants’ head coach, Tom Coughlin…and then again, it doesn’t. If this sounds a bit ambiguous, allow me to explain. I was honored to conduct a phone interview with coach Coughlin’s daughter and Executive Director of the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, Keli Coughlin, and found out what you see is what you get. However, there is a side of the coach that many don’t see and that is where the perception meets reality and muddies the waters.
Coach Coughlin formed the Jay Fund in 1996 in honor of one of his former players, defensive back, Jay McGillis, who was diagnosed with leukemia while he played for Coughlin at Boston College. The cancer was aggressive and McGillis lost his battle only eight months after being diagnosed. I asked Ms. Coughlin what it was about McGillis that inspired the coach to form the foundation.
“Jay was one of those kids who was not the strongest or the fastest on the team, but he worked really hard, did all the right things, he was a good leader, and set a good example. My dad liked and respected that about him,” Keli said.
That is the kind of attitude and work ethic to which a hard-nosed military man and rugged football coach like Tom Coughlin is usually drawn. And while there was a hearty respect of McGillis by Coughlin, many times that relationship is left on the field. In fact, until Jay took ill, that’s about where the relationship began and ended. Keli recalled this to be the case.
“Yeah, I think it was a pretty typical player-coach relationship up to that point. Then from that point on (once Jay got sick) my dad would go to the hospital to visit Jay, call him on the phone, at least see or talk to him every day.”
Keli proceeded to further describe the transcendence of the player/coach relationship to a friendship; not only with Jay, but his whole family.
“When Jay was diagnosed with leukemia, my dad got to sort of witness what he went through physically but also the situation it put his whole family in. Seeing the financial strain and the emotional struggles, he developed a strong bond with the whole McGillis family. I think he could relate to them too. They were an Irish Catholic family with a bunch of kids, middle class which was very similar to my dad’s upbringing,” Keli confided.
The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund was formed to raise money for childhood cancer patients and to help the families get through the ordeal both financially and emotionally. It began as a smaller, secular golf tournament in the greater Jacksonville, Florida area at a time when Coughlin was the head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Two years after the foundation was created, Keli was brought on board…but it was not a case of nepotism.
“Well actually, it wasn’t even him (who approached her for the position). My dad was here in Jacksonville with the Jaguars for a few years before I moved to town… At that point, the Jay Fund was a once a year fundraiser and the rest of the year, they distributed the money, so it was very grass roots. At that point, a gentleman by the name of Fran Foley, who was running the golf tournament said, ‘Hey, you need to help me!’ For me, it sounded like a celebrity golf tournament, it sounds like fun, sign me up!” Keli said.
As she would later explain, it did not stay a small golf tournament for long.
“The Jay Fund hosted our first special event for families who have a child with cancer,” Keli said. “And that was, at the time, what we called an ice cream social party. It was at the Jaguars facility and we invited probably 30 pediatric oncology patients and their siblings to come, and we did a behind the scenes tour of the locker room, the athletic training room, the equipment room, the weight room, and they got to interact with players at each part of the tour. They got to hear a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes. Then in the end, they went to the team cafeteria and we had a big ice cream party. For me, that was the first time the reality of the patients and their families became true. Before that, I knew the story of Jay and I knew, on paper, what I was reading about the families we were helping but they weren’t real until I had that opportunity to first interact with those kids. They’re tremendously inspiring and you get a little time with their parents to find out what their day-to-day life is like, and what a blessing it is to have something out of the ordinary to look forward to that’s not a doctor’s appointment. It’s something to make them feel like regular kids and create happy memories together for the families; which really are so important to these families. A lot of kids have great outcomes, but some don’t unfortunately, and so to give these families special memories together is really important.”
From there the fund raising events took off.
“We do about three parties a year and then we throw in some additional things like a fall party every year that usually has a football or a zoo theme, we have a holiday party, and then we have a Valentine’s Day party as well,” Keli said. “Those are the standard ones. We have three big fundraisers a year; two in Jacksonville and one in New York City. We’re coming up on our 19th annual celebrity golf classic at TPC Sawgrass, in Ponte Vedre (FL).”
While the golf event is not open to public participation, there are sponsorship packages that can be purchased. The other events are open to public participation. You can find ticket information here.
Coach Coughlin is able to call on his NFL friendships, connections, and cache’ to help the cause. Keli provided a rundown of the sports celebrities who are scheduled to participate in the next golf fundraiser:
“We always have great support from the New York Giants and from the coaching community with my dad’s colleagues. It, sort of depends on what the NFL schedule looks like. We’ve got Chris Berman (ESPN) coming this year, Chris Mortensen (ESPN), Steve Mariucci (NFL Network), Michael Irvin (NFL Network), Tim Hasslebeck (NFL Network), a bunch of former players who are in the broadcasting world. Bill Polian (former NFL GM) is going to be attending. Steve Spurrier (South Carolina Football Head Coach) is going to be attending.”
It’s not just NFL celebrities who are involved as former NBA greats, Sam Jones and Clifford Robinson have also offered up their time to the foundation.
When I asked Ms. Coughlin about how much money has been raised to this point, she did not have the figures off the top of her head, but said that they have provided over $5 million in grants to the families affected by childhood cancer. The foundation doesn’t only raise money, cut checks, and send the families on their way. Keli laid out the myriad of assistance and services they provide.
“We provide assistance in a variety of different ways,” Keli said. “The way we most often help families is still with financial assistance. We’ve added a component to that. Almost always when a child is diagnosed with cancer, one parent has to stop working. So they have a loss of income on top of their bills; even families that are middle class who have great insurance have out-of-pocket for co-payments, etc. So, over 50% of our grants are for household expenses: utility bills, car payments, rent, and mortgage.”
While these families have to deal with the financial burden of a sick child, it is far from the only burden with which they are faced. There is an emotional component as well not just for the parents. The siblings have a lot that they are dealing with, too. Keli elaborated on the kinds of support offered to the families.
“Support groups, remembrance weekends for families who lost a child to cancer, support of siblings who are having a hard time dealing with what’s going on with their brother or sister.”
As a mother of two, Keli understands how parents feel when their children are suffering. Recalling when her children were sick with a cold, she worries, “Do they have enough tissues, etc.?” However, perspective is not lost on her. “It’s nowhere near the situation these parents are in!”
Of the many benefits the Jay Fund provides these families in need, the most innovative offers tutoring to families to teach them how to manage their financial situation and budget while dealing with the financial burden of a child fighting cancer. Keli seemed most eager to discuss this.
“We’re really proud of that new financial literacy program. We’ve been doing it for about a year and a half in Jacksonville and we’re about to expand it to New York. We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from that. So now what we’re doing is the old (proverbial) instead of giving them fish, we’re teaching them how to fish. I don’t think anybody is really doing that so that’s what’s making it really exciting for us.”
Under the “How We Help” section of the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund website, there are testimonials from the children and you can meet some of the families who have benefited from the money raised by the foundation. It’s inspiring and moving to read the heart-felt appreciation these folks have for this organization and all of the people involved.
“It’s really humbling and touching when someone shares their intimate story,” Keli said. “I think, for everybody, sometimes we get tied up in our day-to-day life, our to-do list, and just getting through the day and it makes me really take a step back and think about the importance of the impact of the Jay Fund on these individual families. What seems like might be a course of very small things (to us) might really add up to really large things for families. We get parents that say, ‘Oh my goodness, by you helping with our household expenses it allowed me to not have to go back to work and I can spend the last days with my child when they are on hospice care. The only thing I had was time and you gave me time and thank you!’ And that’s profound!”
And how about the hard-nosed, two-time Super Bowl winning head coach?
“He is very passionate about his work with the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund. He feels a very strong connection to the families and feels like it’s one of the most important things that he does. Certainly he gets touched when he has an opportunity to meet face-to-face or hear a thank you or hear their story how the impact of Jay Fund has helped them. He does get notes and letters and things like that. He enjoys seeing some of the kids he met 10 years ago at a party and seeing them now, grown up. He is visibly connected to our organization within how he acts. He doesn’t make a whole lot of time to do a whole lot of things outside of football and this is something he makes a lot of time for and keeps as a priority.”
I felt a little uncomfortable posing questions to Keli with the preface of how her father is perceived by the media and other outsiders as somewhat of a curmudgeon. After all, as his daughter, she knows the duality of his personality: the business-like, no-nonsense head football coach juxtaposed to his more compassionate, caring side of that of a man of profound faith outside of the Giants’ war rooms. And let’s face it, regardless of how true some of these assessments may (or may not) be, the man is her father. As such, an unconditional love and loyalty of a father exists…and rightfully so.
So I did ask Keli to provide some perspective and compare Tom Coughlin the head coach to Tom Coughlin the husband, father and grandfather; as well as how he interacts with the families and children helped by the Jay Fund.
“Well sure (like the Coach Coughlin we see) he’s not ranting and raving and running up and down the sidelines the whole time. That’s just when the camera likes to show him because, like you said, that’s the image they want to portray. You’re going to see (that) he’s a real person with emotions that are not just negative. He laughs and jokes and has a good time in a lot of areas outside of football, but definitely in his interactions with the Jay Fund families, sure!”
When one looks through the photos on the website, they will see the big softie brought to the surface by the children. “Well he does like kids, that’s for sure,” confirmed Keli.
In peeling back the layers of the onion that is the coach, I asked her if there was anything that she could tell us about Mr. Coughlin that those reading this might not know.
“I don’t think I have anything to tell that you have no other way of finding out,” Keli said. “I can just tell you that he is a caring person who believes in his family and his faith and character. He believes in doing the right thing and really living life like that. Giving back and making a difference are important to him…What you see is what you get!”
So in a nutshell, Tom Coughlin is what we thought he was…and then again, not really.
If you are unable to attend any of the aforementioned events, but would like to make a donation, you can do so through the Donate Button on the website.