When One Direction took the stage at MetLife Stadium in New York last Wednesday, they were greeted by thousands of screaming fans.
But no one was more excited than Magen Cabrera and Ahtziri Garcia. Sitting in the East VIP section, the teens could barely contain their enthusiasm. As devoted 1D fans, they knew the words to every song.
It was an evening to remember, and perhaps a night to forget the hard truth: Both girls have been battling cancer.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided by an unlikely benefactor – New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.
The two-time Super Bowl-winning coach created the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, a charity that helps families tackle childhood cancer. The charity, often known as simply the Jay Fund, provides financial, practical and emotional support to families.
“Cancer is a devastating illness, not just to the patient, but to the families,” Coughlin, 68, tells PEOPLE. “Parents have to stop working; brothers and sisters have to deal with all the attention going to the patient. It takes an emotional toll on families, and that’s where the Jay Fund tries to help.”
A Humble Beginning
The Jay Fund dates back to the early ’90s. During his first year coaching football at Boston College, one of Coughlin’s standout players, Jay McGillis, fell ill.
“Jay started in the first ten games of the season,” Coughlin recalls. “And then the trainers said he was too sick to play. He had swollen glands and a temperature. He was diagnosed with leukemia.”
The next seven months were excruciating for the McGillis family. “The disease of cancer stripped everything else away,” says Coughlin. “And by July 3, 1992, Jay was gone.”
During Jay’s illness, his football team rallied around him. “One of my players came to me and said we needed to do something to help Jay and his family,” Coughlin says. “So we did a few different things – collected pledges for a weight ‘lift-a-thon’ and did some other things. We raised $50,000 for the family.”
As Coughlin’s career progressed, the lessons of Jay McGilllis stayed with him. When he took a coaching job at the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1994, he created the framework of his foundation. Out of a devastating illness, the Jay Fund was born.
Helping As Many As Possible
By then, Coughlin had resources. As an NFL coach, he was creating a network of people who could help. Patients could visit their first NFL games and meet their favorite players.
But things went into overdrive when Coughlin began coaching for the Giants in 2004. The Jay Fund had grown, and they were able to help more and more families struggling with cancer.
“There are always needs,” he explains. “We actually have financial advisors who can help a family budget. Cancer is an expensive disease, no matter how well-off the family is.”
Each October, the fund organizes its Champions for Children Gala, a star-studded event that raises money to be disbursed to patients. “The Giants really support this,” says Coughlin. “The players give of their time for the fund. We can bring patients to see the weight room, the field house and the training room. The team really helps out.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done. The foundation now provides psychology services, survivorship programs, and funding for life-saving treatments such as bone marrow and cord blood transplants.
“We will do everything to help stop childhood cancer,” says Coughlin. “I hope the foundation keeps helping long after I’m gone. (His daughter Keli is now the executive director.)
To that end, Coughlin is adamant that the foundation use its money wisely to help as many people as possible. (The watchdog group Charity Navigator gives The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation 4 stars, its highest rating. Among other details: only 5% of the funds raised go to administrative costs and salaries; the rest of the funds go to helping the families.)
Leaving a Legacy
Despite all of Coughlin’s accomplishments on the field, he says he is most proud of his foundation’s charity work.
“When we talk to the people we help, they always say ‘thank you,’ ” he says. “And I say ‘thank you’ right back. What we receive in return is far greater than anything that we give.”
“I sincerely believe that when we’re sitting in front of the good Lord, he’s going to ask if we helped our fellow man,” Coughlin continues. “He’s not going to ask how many Super Bowls I won.”