Legendary Coach Tom Coughlin is a Champion for Kids with Cancer

Tom Coughlin has been a fixture of the National Football League for 20 years. He served as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002, and then joined the New York Giants in 2004. He led the Giants for 12 years, winning two Super Bowl championships, two NFC conference titles, numerous divisional titles, and more than 100 games. But after a tough 6-10 season in 2015, Coughlin stepped down as the Giants’ coach.

By any measure, Coughlin is a hall-of-fame coach. But what is often forgotten is that he’s had even more success off the field. In 1996, he founded the Jay Fund Foundation to help families of kids of all ages defeat cancer. The Fund raises money in all sorts of ways, including the annual Jay Fund Celebrity Golf Classic, which takes place this weekend.

Coughlin spoke to SI Kids about the Jay Fund, the golf tournament, and his time in the NFL.

Can you summarize the work of the Jay Fund?

The Jay Fund Foundation was started in 1996 as a direct result of [my wife] Judy and my experiences with a player named Jay McGillis, who played for me at Boston College and had leukemia. We saw the stress, the anxiety, and the fear that went through the family. Everyone in the family would drop what they were doing and run to the bedside of their sick child. Sometimes bills wouldn’t get paid, and things fell through the cracks. Then, all of a sudden, the incredible cost of cancer and the buildup of expenses added to the stress and anxiety. The family of a cancer patient will try to present a noble and positive front so that the individual who is sick believes everything is being taken care of and that they have has a great chance to recover. We saw this firsthand when we were part of a group from the Boston College Football Family that raised $50,000 for the McGillis family to help with their expenses.

When we went to Jacksonville, we knew that the way we were going to give back would be in the name of Jay McGillis. We knew it would be called the Jay Fund. We knew how we wanted to impact families, but we really didn’t know how we would raise the necessary funds. But our heart was in the right place. Gradually, we stared to make an impact in the community, and we still do. The Jay Fund helps families financially, emotionally, psychologically, and practically by providing funds so that they can meet their basic needs during the course of the time that their child is being treated for cancer. 

Where did you get the idea for the celebrity golf tournament?

We were in the land of golf. Our home was in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and across the street was TPC Sawgrass, where the Players’ Championship is played. We thought as long as we are in the land of golf, why don’t we try a golf tournament? It wasn’t a novel idea, but it got us started. This will be our 21st Annual Jay Fund Celebrity Golf Classic. We have been at TPC Sawgrass for a number of years. Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour Commissioner, along with the Tour itself have been great to us. We started out with golf, and now in Jacksonville alone we have many events. In New York on October 14, we will host the 12th annual Champions for Children Gala at Cipriani. In addition, we have radio spots, holiday parties, and all kinds of events where we also try to give quality of life experiences to these kids and their families. 

How important is an event like the golf tournament to the work the Jay Fund does?

It allows us to have the funds. Everything we do in the name of the Jay Fund is done first class. What we want to be able to do in our major fundraising events is provide a good time for our patrons, but also keep track and sight of our objectives and goals. People have been wonderful about that. Each year we’ve raised more money, and that money goes directly to our great cause. 

Do you have a favorite memory from the tournament?

I have a lot of favorite memories, and many have to do with the wonderful people that have attended our events. But the 17th hole really stands out with me. This is the famous island green where you have to hit the ball up to the green. Basically, 50% of the time I hit the ball into the water and 50% of the time I hit the green. 

How has the Jay Fund changed your life?

It puts life into perspective for us. It has given us a chance to give back in the name of a wonderful young man and in the name of a foundation that we really feel is there for families in need. There is no bureaucracy. Our social workers follow a very specific criteria and as soon as they say a family is in need — boom — the check is there. 

What was it like to work with players like Mark Herzlich, who battled cancer himself?

Amazing story. Mark came to us as a free agent. He made the difficult and brave decision to favor one type of treatment over another so that if it worked he might be able to play football again. Thank God, it worked. We asked Mark to sign with the Giants. I was amazed right away because I felt like the young man would have to have some kind of break during practices. But he proved to me that he had incredible stamina, and despite the devastation of the disease he fought his way back. This is an amazing young man who battled this terrible disease and got back on the football field through the power of his own will and certainly with the help of God, as well. His determination allowed him to not let the diseases stop him from playing the game that he loved. 

Since retiring, what has the experience been like for you to be away from the game, especially when something like the NFL Draft is happening?

I’m not crazy about the word “retire.” Someone suggested the word “transitioning,” so that’s what I’m doing. I watched the first round [of the draft] with some anxiety. I did not spend the amount of time that I normally would have, obviously, in studying the players. But I was keenly interested in the first round and I watched the second and third days, but not as frequently. For 47 years I’ve coached, 21 of them as a head coach in the NFL and seven prior to that as an assistant NFL coach. So my life’s calendar had to follow the National Football League. Not to be a part of it is much different. 

What have you been doing since you started transitioning? 

To be honest, I’ve worked very hard on the Jay Fund. In Jacksonville, Florida, in 2008 in the height of the recession, we went out and raised $5 million so the Jay Fund would be in perpetuity. In New York, our goal is $10 million, and we have approximately $6 million collected to this point. What we really are trying to do is to raise enough money so that long after we’re gone the Jay Fund will be helping families who have a child with cancer. 

You have had an incredible career with both the Giants and the Jaguars. What has been the best moment of your career with them? 

There have been a lot of great ones. Of course, the two Super Bowl wins versus New England and the two NFC Championships wins against Green Bay and San Francisco. In 1993, I was at Boston College and we defeated Notre Dame. That year they were number one in the country. They had just beaten Florida State to gain that lofty position, and we went in and beat them in a heck of a game. We jumped way out in front. Then they came back and took the lead, and with five seconds to go, David Gordon kicked a 41-yard field goal to win it. It was something. Also, when I was in Jacksonville in 1996, we defeated John Elway and the Broncos who were on their way to winning a second Super Bowl in a row. There have been some games of that magnitude that I remember. The first win in the history of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise was an exciting time, as well. There have been a few that stand out, but believe me they are all very meaningful. 

Are there any regrets?

I have regrets. I wish I could say that I didn’t. I thought the Giants were the best team in the NFL in 2008 and should have won the Super Bowl that year. We had the incident where Plaxico Burress was injured, and so we lost him right at a pivotal time of the year. That was disappointing. I think these last three years have been very disappointing to me to not accomplish what we needed to accomplish. Certainly this 2015 season, losing 8 games by 6 points or less, that’s very disturbing. The law of averages says you ought to have won two or three of those games.

What advice would you give to kids who want to be involved in football and be involved safely?

First of all, football is the greatest team sport ever invented. The benefits of playing the game are numerous, and the one advantage that tops them all is the fact there is no sport like football in terms of Team Team Team. You can’t do it alone. It takes 11 guys to accomplish something, and what you build while doing that are memories that last a lifetime. I realize that so much is being said about concussions and injuries. I agree that we must do everything in our power to eliminate these injuries. But I do not want to take one step back from the benefits that people achieve by participating in football. 

I would say to young people, and the parents of young people, that you need make sure that you evaluate the coaching situation and the objectives of the league that the youngsters are going to play in. I don’t say that every child should start playing football at a certain age. When the parents feel like the child is developed enough to play the game of football, then so be it. They do need to make sure that the equipment and all safety procedures are followed to the fullest. This way the individual has a chance to maximize the returns that he will get from playing the great game of football. 

If given the opportunity, would you like to continue your coaching career?

I would welcome the opportunity to evaluate that. Certainly the hunger and excitement are beginning to develop once again. I would want to be in a position where, although there is never a guarantee about winning, the team that would be interested in me would also be a team that I believed could win. 

The Jay Fund’s 21st annual golf classic will take on place May 22-23.. For more information on the charity and the classic, visit tcjayfund.org.

Photos: Simon Bruty (celebration), Tom Coughlin Jay Fund (golf, hospital), Al Bello/Getty Images (wave), Mike Coppola/Getty Images (kids)

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