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Coughlin Touches Many Lives Off The Field


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The phone at the McGillis household in Brockton, Mass., always rings at the same time -- between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. -- and the message never changes.

 

"I'm thinking of Jay today," Tom Coughlin says, "and all his virtues."

 

These are the words that John and Patricia McGillis say they hear from the Giants' coach every year on their son's birthday, on a few holidays -- and on July 3, the anniversary of his death.

 

This phone call, they say, never gets old.

 

Their son, Jay, was a safety on Coughlin's first Boston College team in 1991. He came home after a game against Syracuse that November complaining of swollen glands. He thought he had mono.

 

Days later, he was at the hospital, diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, and their lives were never the same.

 

Jay McGillis died eight months later at the age of 22.

 

The soft side

 

Sunday afternoon, when the Giants meet the Green Bay Packers in an NFC divisional playoff game, Coughlin likely will be shown on the television broadcast either frantically waving his arms while arguing with an official or frowning while standing still on the sideline, hands on hips.

 

These are the visuals that football fans most commonly associate with the animated Giants coach because this is what they see, week after week, year after year. But every time one of the television commentators suggests that this guy might try lightening up, there's a mother outside Boston ready to yell back at her screen.

 

"He's so different than how they always have him pictured on TV, you know, as this mean machine," Patricia McGillis said. "There's a side of him that's just softhearted. He'd do anything for anyone."

 

McGillis knows, because she says she experienced the other side of Coughlin firsthand during the most difficult time of her life.

 

Coughlin spent time with the family at the hospital most days, always playing the role of the coach with her ailing son. She remembers Jay having trouble swallowing because the cancer had spread to his central nervous system and Coughlin saying, "Come on, Jay, you can do it, let's go."

 

Coughlin also came to the McGillis' house in the days after Jay died, grieving with the family, even asking to see Jay's room. Coughlin told them that Jay was special to him, McGillis recalled this past week in a telephone interview, because he always gave 100 percent. He vowed to never forget him.

 

Sparked by having seen the McGillis family put their lives on hold to be by their son's side, Coughlin was inspired to create a foundation to raise money for families of children afflicted with cancer.

 

Named the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, the foundation kicked off with a golf tournament in 1996 during his second year as coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. It has since expanded to include other annual fundraisers, both in Jacksonville and in the metropolitan area.

 

They've given more than $3.5 million in grants during its existence, including more than $500,000 last year, according to Keli Coughlin, Tom's daughter and the foundation's executive director. But as much as the finances help, Coughlin's personal involvement -- and the unveiling of his surprising soft side -- often has had just as much of an impact on the families going through a terrible time.

 

'Really connects with kids'

 

"My father really connects with the kids," Keli Coughlin said. "I know a lot of people who watch him on the sidelines can't believe that, but he really enjoys getting to know the kids, getting to know the families."

 

Look no further than the rock that has been sitting on Coughlin's desk for nearly a decade. It was a gift from a young boy named Alex McCarter, a thank-you gesture to the coach for having taken him on a private tour of the Jaguars' stadium after surgery to remove a brain tumor.

 

"After the surgery, he couldn't speak for about five months, and to see him smiling coming out of the stadium all the way to the car, that just touched my heart," said Christina McCarter, the boy's mother.

 

Two years later, Alex, then 8 years old and on the road to recovery, was into collecting rocks, always looking for a "magic" one, his mother said. "I remember he picked one up," she said, "and said, 'We need to give this magic rock to Mr. Coughlin,' " which they did at the next gathering for the foundation.

 

The "magic" rock remains on Coughlin's desk and Alex McCarter now is 18 years old, having been in remission for 12 years, his mother said. He'll graduate from high school later this year.

 

Extended family

 

Patricia McGillis is not surprised when she hears stories like this. This is the Tom Coughlin she got to know during the most trying period of her life. The Coughlins, she said, are "extended family."

 

She watches every Giants game, sometimes even praying for good things to happen to Coughlin's Giants during the particularly close games. "And I know," she said, "that you're not supposed to pray for things like that."

 

And just as Coughlin calls the McGillis family every year on the same day, just to say he's thinking of Jay, McGillis returns the favor by calling his New Jersey house after Giants games. "I don't call to talk to him," she said. "I call his house just to leave a message." After particularly close games, she says she'll leave a message about how she's "getting too old for this."

 

Recently she called Coughlin's wife, Judy, to say she's worrying about what the stress of these games might be doing to Coughlin. "But Judy tells me he'll be all right. 'Don't worry, don't worry,' " McGillis said. "But I do worry.

 

"That's how much I love Tom."

 

http://www.newsday.com/sports/football/giants/coughlin-touches-many-lives-off-the-field-1.3452725

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