It is about 11 a.m. and Tom Coughlin is not only running late, he’s downright behind schedule. The former New York Giants head coach is not at all accustomed to this; this after all is the man who invented ‘Coughlin Time’ where being on time to a meeting or a practice meant actually being late.
Be there five minutes early or don’t even bother showing up.
But here is Coughlin, dressed in a light-blue quarter zip sweater meticulously ironed khaki pants, laughing as he acknowledges he is behind schedule. Coughlin is pushing a cart, loaded with gifts, down the hallway of Hackensack University Medical Center in north Jersey. He is here as part of the Jay Fund, working in conjunction with Tomorrows Children’s Fund, handing out gifts to the young patients battling pediatric cancer.
But he’s doing more than just giving a Star Trek toy to a young boy or a DVD movie to a little girl, her head completely bare of any hair following chemotherapy treatment. He is offering a smile, a ray of hope to the children and their parents.
And here might be the only place where ‘Coughlin Time’ simply doesn’t exist.
The irony is that most of these children, many of whom have been diagnosed with cancer as babies, don’t know that the man in the ironed khakis handing them a gift is a two-time Super Bowl winner as a head coach. He comes in with a gift or two under his arms, just to smile and wave. He spends a few minutes with each family and hears their stories. Wife Judy is there with him, smiling as she listens to tales of diagnoses and the hurt, so much hurt, coming out. Many parents are still shaken by the news that their child has a diagnosis that carries so much weight and hurt. But here is a man in the spotlight who wants to listen, to encourage them and when need be, give them a hug.
He cares for them, even if they only just met. That’s because this fight against cancer is a personal one for him.
Coughlin’s involvement with families with cancer dates back to 1991 when he was the head coach at Boston College. One of his players, Jay McGillis, was diagnosed with leukemia and Coughlin watched the linebacker battle the disease, but he also saw the strength in the family as they struggled with the hospital visits and the time consuming process of caring for their son.
The memories of the McGillis family led to Coughlin’s creation of the Jay Fund a few years later. The charity not only helps better the lives of pediatric cancer patients but also to care for the families who also are affected by the disease by creating a support network to help them through the process.
He calls him “St. Jay” – the former player who inspired this movement that helps families with children battling cancer. He is a guiding memory each and every day.
“These kids are the real heroes. They and their parents,” Coughlin told Metro. “They have to be every day to go through this. They go through so much not just physically but emotionally as well.”
It is almost noon now and itinerary for the day might as well be thrown out the window.
He’s almost done with his rounds, the pile of hand-wrapped gifts he’s been pushing around on that cart now down to a few. Coughlin is ready to head into a room of a child when a mother peaks out from behind the closed door of an adjacent room. The lights are off and her son is lying on the hospital bed. This isn’t the first time today that Coughlin is being asked to audible.
Every step down the hallway, it seems, is another stop for Coughlin. Nurses who work in the pediatric cancer center see the face of the former Giants head coach and ask for a photograph. Fathers want to shake his hand, mothers want to give or perhaps receive a hug.
Schedule – there is no schedule at this point. A man known for punctuality to almost a fault is well behind the itinerary.
“We’re not on ‘Coughlin Time’ when we visit these kids. Every one of these kids in every hospital room you visit, it’s a different story there. There are parents there. I’ve seen it so many times…the parents run to the side of the sick child. Everything else is at a standstill. It is so important psychologically, the back and forth. The child wants to know that the parents are OK, that they are not burden. The parent needs to make sure that they exude confidence to the child,” Coughlin said.
“Every time you enter a room you get a sense of where that is. It is a huge part of healing as well. In an environment where the child feels like the parent is OK, there is no stress, that is the kind of environment that is the environment for healing.”
This room with the boy inside, lying on his side in the dark room, is not part of the original schedule. He’s a new patient, very new. Just checked in.
The mother emerges from the room and whispers, getting the attention of a member of Coughlin’s staff, there with the Jay Fund. She’s wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, her eyes tired.
A few days before her son was just like every other young boy, full of the energy that comes with a Friday afternoon. He was outside playing with his friends when his mother, inside, got the phone call. The phone call.
This would be his first week of treatment at the hospital.
Coughlin is pulled aside. He pulled off his scrubs and walked over to the disinfectant unit on the wall outside of the door from the room he was just in. “Wash In/Wash Out” the sign said and the former Giants coach dutifully obliged.
He then turns his attention to this mother. Could he stop in and visit him? He’s a huge football fan. He plays football. It would mean so much.
A smile, a rare sight on Coughlin’s mouth when he walked the sidelines, emerges. Of course he will.
He looks through his cart and found a gift. He brought a couple extra for a moment like this, maybe her son would like this one? He signs a card to him then ducks into the room. They didn’t talk about his diagnosis. No mention of his treatment.
This boy, middle-school age, sits up. They’re talking football.
“That was a very unusual case, he was just diagnosed,” Coughlin said.
“He’s very scared, not knowing what to expect, what’s next for him. Mom is there for him, there for him.”
This is why Coughlin and his charity are here, for families such as this.
The Jay Fund was created to help families along the way through this process. It might be a gift card to help them with food shopping or help with a mortgage payment. There’s counseling available and seminars. They partner with groups such as the Tomorrows Children’s Fund to simply help in anyway they can.
And there are moments like this when Coughlin is there in-person to help families and guide them along for a few moments. The child might be a young boy or girl, too young to understand who this man is who just walked into the room.
But the parents very often know who he is and the presence of a man who has won two Super Bowls, who has led men to victory, means so much right now.
“The Jay Fund has been an amazing partner with the Tomorrows Children’s Fund. They give us a grant each year which is twofold. One part of the grant is used for Shop Rite gift cards. The second part is used for financial aid for our families. Paying rent, mortgage, utility bills, car payments, car insurance. They also are very generous in providing tickets for sporting events, the Sundae Blitz, special dinners for holidays, adopting families at Christmas . They have had our patients do the coin toss at the Giant games. We currently have approximately 150 patients on active treatment and several hundred others on follow up treatment. The Jay Fund helps support all the families in their geographic area,” said Lynn Hoffman, executive director of Tomorrows Children’s Fund.
“TomCoughlin brings his genuine concern, compassion and love for children with cancer directly to the patients . He raises awareness for TCF through his wonderful partnership.”
Hoffman is there to walk the halls with Coughlin. She seems to know each family inside, knows their stories, knows their hurt. Everyone gets a hug.
He’s downstairs now, the cart once filled with gifts that he and his wife had purchased themselves then had wrapped in their home is now empty. He pushes it off the elevator and heads through the lobby towards the Tomorrows Children’s Fund’s office.
He’s halfway there when he sees a father carrying his daughter through the lobby. The little girl was one of his first visits of the day and she is bundled up in a heavy coat, her father shifting her weight in his arms as they stare at the beautifully decorated Christmas tree near the main entrance. They are about ready to head outside when they see Coughlin.
“I know you,” Coughlin says as he pushes his cart towards the office nearby.
“Yes, we’re checking out,” the father said. There’s a smile to his face. Treatment is done.
On a day full of stops, Coughlin stops one last time and applauds as the girl, leaning against her father’s shoulders, now heads towards the door and outside into the bitter cold. She has the toy given to her in one arm, a stuffed animal in the other.
Coughlin and his entire team of helpers stop and watch the two of them exit out the door, the father managing the little girl in one arm and a bag of personal belongings in the other. Her treatments are done for now.
They hurry through the cold into their waiting car.
“Isn’t that great?” Coughlin says, shaking his head and smiling.
Then he pushes his cart through an open door, hoping to one day hear more stories just like the one for this little girl.