Tom Coughlin, head coach of the New York Giants, wants to talk about something other than football. Something that his fans might not know about him. Something that’s near and dear to his heart. Something that, at times, makes him cry, but inspires him every day. It all started back in 1996, while Tom was head coach of the Boston College football.
On his team was a young man named Jay McGillis. Unfortunately, Jay developed leukemia that season and Tom witnessed the financial and emotional struggles the family went through during Jay’s illness. Sadly, Jay also lost his battle, but Tom decided that he would try to help others like Jay if he ever had the chance. Three years later, he founded the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which works to improve the quality of life of these families by lessening the financial burden and providing emotional support for those going through the crisis of a child with cancer.
Tom hasn’t stopped since. The day I spoke with him, it was off season at 8:30 in the morning, a time that you would think he would be slowing down and relaxing, but that’s not Tom. He goes year-round doing what he can to raise money for this charity. Right after the football season started, he hosted the Champions for Children Gala fundraiser, an annual event in NYC that raised almost $700,000 and is attended by scores of current and former Giants. He recently hosted a wine tasting fundraiser for hundreds of people in Jacksonville, Florida. In between, he’s visiting sick kids and meeting with families and doing more and more fundraising.
Tom and I talked about the work that he does.
Were you raised to donate your time and give back?
The mentality was always there, but the focus and opportunity wasn’t present until Boston College. After we lost Jay, my wife Judy and I looked at each other and knew that we wanted to do something. We saw what the family went through, leaving their jobs to come and be at the side of a sick child. We saw how they needed help (see what the Foundation does to help by reading this). The players at Boston College saw this too and they wanted to do something, so they came up with commitments for weights they could lift and they raised $50,000. When I took the job in Jacksonville, we started the foundation in the name of Jay. (Florida) was the land of golf, so we started with a golf tournament.
Do you see the fact that you met Jay as fate?
When you’re in it, you don’t see it that way, the tragedy is too great. I can look back and still see myself at the funeral. The players all stood in the pews as the casket was brought out and I stood next to Tom McManus (played at Boston College and Jacksonville Jaguar from 1995-1999) and Tom was bawling his eyes out. You’re too close to it at that time. I was reminded by Jay’s mom and dad as to what Jay has done for giving back, and how it occurred in the spirit of him. That is a tremendous realization. If that was called a gift, then so be it.
You’ve met a lot of patients like Jay since then. Who do you remember most?
A little girl named Lyla Burchnell, who was sick and only about two years old. I met the family at their place and when I walked in -- it was something I’ll never forget -- there she was, in the final stages of her battle against leukemia, comforting her mother. She was telling her, “Don’t worry about me mommy, I’ll be okay.” Ernie Bono and I looked at each other, and our tears were flowing. How does this happen that a young child is more concerned about comforting her mother? She passed away at 5:30 the next morning.
One theme that always comes back to me and Judy is that as sick as these kids are, they don’t complain. The kids are in the hospital and they have really bad days and they are quiet and feeling awful, maybe they just had a round of chemo, but there’s no ‘why me.’ In the locker room, if you walk around you’ll hear bitching and moaning because it’s hot on the field or something like that, but here are these kids and they are facing a catastrophic disease and fighting for their life and not complaining.
One of the reasons we do the Valentine’s Day party, Christmas party is because we believe that for these kids to have a good day it’s such a cause of celebration. These kids can’t go to school. To understand how they can know what’s in store for them and not complain is amazing.
Does it ever just get to you?
I have my moments, and I try not to let it get to me, but it’s hard. Even watching Jay go from 190 pounds to 80 pounds in a year was hard. In a year he was gone.
What is the most important thing you want us to know about your foundation?
From 2006 to 2009, our yearly payment requests went from $300,000 to $480,000. because of the recession and employment issues. The number of children who are contracting leukemia and cancer has also increased and so has the amount of kids with brain tumors. Last year, we helped 89 families and had 273 requests. The average help was $489,000 way more than we’ve had to pay in terms of aid to these families. It pays the mortgages and buys the groceries.
Allow yourself to think of the families who have a child with cancer or leukemia. Stop and think how the whole world turned upside down for the parents too. It’s easy for them to let a mortgage payment go by, or use the money they do have in a different way -- say to core blood transplants which are $35,000 each. Parents have to make decisions about driving their kids or feeding the rest of their family. We evaluate these families and try to help as much as we can.
What about your volunteers?
It’s so difficult to thank everyone on the J-Fund team -- I think of the countless number of people who have donated and volunteered. It’s the tremendous heart of these people who are either donating or giving money. Our goal has always been that our ‘customers’ we serve are going to get first class treatment. Listen to what they’ve been through and how much help is needed. How wonderful the donors are who dig deep in good and bad times for these families and who want to be nameless.
Since its inception in 1996 the Jay Fund has been able to provide over $2.5 million dollars to help support these families, as well as a capital campaign that raised $4.3M so that the Jay Fund can go on in perpetuity. No matter what team you root for during the football season, it’s easy to root for Tom Coughlin and the work that he does.
Thanks Tom! We'll check in and post through the year as Tom's event information becomes available.
For more information, to make a donation or to find out about hosting your own fundraiser, visit www.tcjayfund.org.