SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - There are moments during the course of more than a generation of time with the Philadelphia Eagles that really stand out and that, you just know, are going to resonate. Big games, of course, and there have been so many of them. Great conversations and seismic moments off the field, no doubt. And then there is the week that has been for the Eagles and the fans and the Eagles Autism Foundation that hammered home once again the connection that makes it all work and that, truly, means everything in the end.
"It's been incredible," said Ryan Hammond, the executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation, who has been busier than busy in the spring and these first few days of summer with the Eagles Autism Challenge in May and then back-to-back events this week - an exclusive and ultra-premium two-day golf outing at the legendary Merion Golf Club followed by the Second Annual Eagles Celebrity Bartending Event at the Jersey Shore featuring Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata, and Kelce's brother, Kansas City All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
"We had 22 threesomes pay $25,000 each and were joined by a celebrity to play golf and had an unbelievable experience. We had three generous underwriters (John Ballbach, Conrad Radcliffe, and Vivek Bantwal) and it was, truly, a transformative experience for everyone. It was much more than just playing golf, although that was really special, too. Jeffrey Lurie was there and was such a big part of it and the way he expressed his commitment to the cause and to the families that we impact, I think it was an impactful event.
"Then we're at The Ocean Drive in Sea Isle City a day later and we had a morning event with SportsRadio 94WIP and we didn't know what to expect, so to see this large crowd out so early hearing and seeing Jason Kelce and getting a better sense of his commitment to what we're doing in the community and having another opportunity to amplify our message just was the perfect way to start a day that continued with the bartending event. We had thousands of fans there, everyone had a great time and we - and I mean 'we' that includes the players, everyone in the organization who took part, The Ocean Drive and their great staff, and especially the fans that supported us so generously - it was just amazing."
Yes, it was. An organization that has always embraced the love from the fans and the worldwide community took it to a new level to continue the relentless drive to change the world through the Eagles Autism Foundation, understanding that, according to the CDC, 1 in 44 8-year-old children have been identified with autism and developmental disabilities. It is a staggering statistic that, clearly, hits close to home.
While these events offer participants a chance to spend time with their favorite Eagles - and at Merion the list was a long one including legends like Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Harold Carmichael, Ron Jaworski, Jon Dorenbos (who, of course, performed a magic act at the Pairings Party on Sunday night), Donnie Jones, Chad Lewis, Brandon Brooks, and others - the overriding theme was that a community impacted by autism joined forces with the strength of the Philadelphia Eagles brand to raise enormous funds. The golf outing, as you do the math, was an incredible revenue generator - and 100 percent of the funds raised go directly to research and development programs - and the Celebrity Bartender outing more than doubled the 2021 debut.
A smashing success.
"It's humbling, sure, to see all of these people here and so excited to meet us and hang out with us," Jason Kelce said. "More than that, it's incredibly gratifying. Playing this game has afforded me the privilege of connecting with millions of people and to unite. For me and for the people here, we have a chance to meet again and again and share memories. These people have supported the Eagles for many years.
"We're making a difference. You know, playing for the Eagles gives you a stage that's incredible. When you lend support for causes that you believe in, that are near and dear to you and that mean so much to you and your family, it makes it much bigger than the game itself. I'm honored to be here."
That's truly how everyone felt. Hammond has already scheduled the 2023 golf outing at Merion (June 11-12) and has labeled it "a destination event" that in the first year attracted not only the Hall of Fame lineup of legendary Eagles but also Kelce and placekicker Jake Elliott, punter Arryn Siposs, former Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, PGA Tour professional Harry Higgs, and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" creator and actor Rob McElhenney.
"I'm so thankful to everyone who used their celebrity status to bring everyone together with this personal connection," Hammond said. "Not everyone is comfortable talking about autism. It's very, very difficult for a lot of people. I think what we've been able to do is to provide acceptance for the community. There is a sense of pride for the community. It's about inclusion and then acceptance. We want to embrace the community and help them understand that they are not alone.
"The Philadelphia Eagles are in your corner. We are here to hug you and provide a voice. So, it's been just a total commitment and we're growing and growing as an advocate for the community. We mobilize wherever we can to raise the dollars, and the community has been there to support us every step of the way. We are all so thankful, so appreciative."