Eli Manning Teams with Former Coach Tom Coughlin to Help Families of Children with Cancer

Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning spent years competing together: As the longtime head coach and quarterback of the New York Giants, the pair won two Super Bowls in the 2007 and 2011 seasons.

Both are now out of football, but they have teamed together to tackle their toughest opponent yet: childhood cancer. Coughlin’s charity, The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, helps families who have children with cancer. And Manning, who retired after last season, was an honoree at the charity’s virtual gala last Friday.

From his Saturday Night Life appearance to his locker room pranks, Manning is known for his sly sense of humor and unique brand of anti-cool coolness. In tribute, many of former teammates — including Justin Tuck, Victor Cruz and David Tyree — danced and lip-synched for a parody video of the Jonas Brothers' hit single “Cool.”

The gala, which was virtual for the first time in the organization’s 26-year-history, raised about $1 million. Since its inception, the Jay Fund has provided $14 million to more than 5,000 families with children suffering from cancer in the New York City and Jacksonville, Fla. areas, where Coughlin coached the NFL’s Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars.

The organization’s guiding belief is that the sacrifices made by families of children with cancer are extraordinary — and often overlooked. In a 2019 interview with PEOPLE, Coughlin, citing the National Children’s Cancer Society, said dealing with childhood cancer costs families an average of $833,000, taking into account medical costs and lost wages. “Can you imagine how a regular family can handle that?” he said.

For these families, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation: Layoffs and furloughs are widespread. Families already pressed for time now have to help children with distance learning. Cancer patients often have compromised immune systems, which makes going into an office a nonstarter for many parents.

Consequently, says Coughlin, requests to the charity for emergency assistance for families has increased by 52 percent since the start of the pandemic.

The charity is named after Jay McGillis, a college football player who played under Coughlin when he coached Boston College in the early 1990s and died of leukemia in 1992. Coughlin saw the emotional and financial toll the cancer diagnosis took on McGillis’ family — and became determined to help families in that situation.

“When you tell a family their child has cancer, their world is turned upside-down,” Coughlin told PEOPLE in 2018. “The child knows the parents are stressed — he just senses it. So the idea is that the parents are not alone and you’re helping them — it might be mortgage payments, utilities, food, car payments. Once the parents know there’s someone that will help them, they can then relax and let the child know that what’s important is for them to beat the disease. That’s the role we play.”

Former players reunite to help coach’s charity

Through the years, Manning, who is also heavily involved in the New Jersey-based Tackle Kids Cancer charity, has been a devoted supporter of the Jay Fund. That’s true of many former Giants as well as the organization itself: The team hosts an annual event at MetLife Stadium, and owner John Mara even appeared in the “Cool” parody.

Coughlin recounted a memory that reflects Manning's commitment. Several years ago, the charity had arranged for Manning to speak with a boy with advanced stage cancer at an event. The boy idolized the quarterback, but as the event wound down, the boy and his dad hadn’t shown up. After it was over, Manning went home.

Some hours later, the dad showed up, carrying his son in his arms because the boy was so sick. Manning drove back to the event to meet with the boy. Days later, the boy died. “And the dad said that was the greatest moment of his life,” recalls Coughlin.

Coughlin was a famously hard-nosed coach. He says that moments like those "brings thing into focus in perspective. We get so wound up in being the best we can be in our profession. We forget there are people out there that literally take it one day at a time.”

Manning says that being involved with the Jay Fund and Tackle Kids Cancer makes him “realize there are so many people who need help. There are so many families dealing with a child with cancer.”

Manning, who has four children ages 1 to 9, says becoming a father himself has given him a greater appreciation for what other parents go through. At the events, he speaks with kids — and also the parents.

"I spend more time with the parents, giving them an ear. You feel for them. Because it’s just not fair — for all the people involved," he says.

With most of the Giants from the Super Bowl teams having retired from football, Jay Fund events now double as team reunions.

Says Coughlin, “Nothing touches me more than being able to get together with people I coached, and worked with and had dreams fulfilled with. To have them come back and do it over and over again, simply because we ask them to? I can’t put into words what that means to me.”

From the players’ perspective, Manning says their continued support “is a great tribute to Coach and the respect we all have for him. The football coach that he is, the family man, and his involvement with this charity: You see the passion for all of it. It’s evident in the way he lives.”

More information about the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation can be found at Tcjayfund.org.

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