Pat McGillis is probably the only New York Giants fan in New England Patriots-crazed Brockton, Mass. When friends and neighbors ask her why, she has a sound response.
“It’s funny. Everybody says to me, ‘The Patriots, you need to be a Patriots fan. You’re from Brockton,’” the mother of six related during a recent interview with CNY. “And I say you know what, I think the Patriots are tremendous. I think they’re great. But I root for Tom Coughlin and the Giants!
“When Jay was diagnosed with leukemia, Tom was there for the McGillis family,” she continued. “His love and compassion were endless. I have tears in my eyes to think that Jay had such an impact on Tom Coughlin.”
Jay McGillis, Pat’s son, has indeed profoundly affected the life of the famously authoritarian coach who even today in his more avuncular persona exudes intensity on the Giants sideline.
Jay McGillis was a strapping strong-side safety on Coughlin’s teams at Boston College in the early 1990s. Not huge by football standards, the big red-headed kid impressed the coach with his work ethic and intense play. It was Coughlin’s first year at BC, in game No. 10 against Syracuse, that McGillis, then a sophomore, first felt something wrong. Following the game, his glands were painfully swollen and his face was beet red.
What was originally thought to be a case of mononucleosis, an inconvenient if fairly common medical condition for a person of McGillis’s age, would be diagnosed as leukemia. He died at home in his bed eight months later on July 3, 1992 as the pre-Independence Day fireworks brightened the New England evening sky. He was 22.
“The shocking news of that just went through our entire team,” recalled Coughlin of the shattering diagnosis. “Jay became a very, very sick young man, and the disease was ravaging.
“But, in the meantime, we had an opportunity as a very close team to see the courage of the McGillis family and the devotion, to watch and to observe, to see everyone drop what they were doing and run to the side of the sick child. A sister (Kathy), who was working in Washington, quit her job and actually moved right into his room at the hospital, so Jay would have company. Both Judy, my wife, and I knew that that if we ever had a chance to give back, it would be in the spirit, in the name of Jay McGillis.”
Following Jay’s funeral, Coughlin continued to stay in regular touch with the McGillis family, calling on Jay’s birthday, or on the anniversary of his death, or sometimes just out of the blue on a weekday evening to see how things were going. When the Jacksonville Jaguars hired Coughlin in 1995, he decided he was now in a position to make good on his promise. He picked up the phone and dialed Pat McGillis with his idea.
“I was just elated when he called,” Ms. McGillis said. “He said, ‘I’m going to establish the Jay Fund in memory of Jay. And we’re going to help children with cancer and their families. We’re going to do all we can to be there.’”
Coughlin has more than kept his word. He established the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation in 1996. Starting very humbly with a golf tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., which raised about $36,000 for Jacksonville-area families, as Coughlin recalled, the fund has steadily expanded. Today it serves families, both in Jacksonville and in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area by offering financial as well as emotional and practical support services to families struggling under the onslaught of this particularly cruel and terrifying disease. In early October, the Jay Fund’s 11th annual Champions for Children Gala raised $1.5 million.
“Almost always, when a child is diagnosed with cancer, a parent has to stop working, and that loss of income combined with the expenses that go along with medical issues can create a real crisis for the family,” explained Keli Coughlin, Coach Coughlin’s daughter and the fund’s executive director.
“We step in on a short-term basis to provide relief for household expenses. But then in the long scale, we have a financial literacy program that we call our financial game plan. So, we have financial coaches that meet one-on-one with families to empower them with tools and strategies to long term show how they can get through childhood cancer.”
“It’s a tremendous financial drain on the family. We meet their financial needs in terms of mortgages, car payments, electrical bills and unfortunately sometimes funeral expenses,” the coach added. “But we’re also there emotionally.”
One of the things the Jay Fund does is sponsor, in cooperation with the New York Giants family, an annual outing for the children to the team’s practice facility every May called Sundae Blitz. There, the kids get the chance to meet some Giants players, toss footballs through tires, even suit up in Giants gear and just be kids. It gives parents the opportunity to mingle with and offer mutual support to other parents facing the same trauma.
“What we’re trying to do is provide a day in which there are no needles, no doctors, no poking on these kids,” Coughlin explained. “Their parents get to spend time with other parents, and a bond is formed that way, as well. Then, when we finish all that, we go down to the cafeteria and have an ice cream sundae.”
Coughlin says these visits are also special for the players who take part. It kind of puts things in perspective.
“Two years ago, a young boy was very, very sick, and he actually had chemotherapy the day of the Sundae Blitz, so they got here late,” Coughlin recalled. “He was supposed to spend a few minutes with Eli (Manning, the the Giants quarterback, who thinking the family wasn’t going to make it had by then left the facility). We called Eli. He came back and sat down with this young boy.
“The boy passed away within a couple of weeks of that time, but his dad wrote me a note and said that was one of the most memorable things of his entire life. He was so happy that this young man had chance to sit and visit with Eli.”
Not surprisingly, Coughlin brings the same intensity and drive to this pursuit as he does to his coaching. “He’s a very focused person, and when he’s on the field, it’s the game and he’s focused on that,” Pat McGillis said. “And he’s so focused on this fund! He’s adamant about. It’s just heartwarming. I’ve seen him visiting these children in Jacksonville and his love and his compassion. What Tom Coughlin has done to keep Jay’s spirit alive is overwhelming.”
A long time ago, Pat McGillis gave Coughlin a St. Michael’s medal, which he wears to this day. In Daniel 12, St. Michael is called “the great prince who standeth for the children of Thy people.” He is also the special patron of sick people.
A man of deep and abiding Catholic faith, Coughlin said there is a simple basis for his care and concern. “We are all responsible,” he affirmed. “We are all called to be our brother’s keepers and I firmly believe that when we go before the Big Guy, he’s going to ask us, ‘What have you done for your fellow man?’ So, we’re about the business of trying to help in whatever way we can.”
On Jay’s headstone is inscribed: “The quality of a man’s life is how deeply he has touched the lives of others.”