When the Philadelphia Eagles host kids and their families at training camp practices, there is one spot where the magic happens: inside the Brian Dawkins tent. Naturally, the place everyone wants to be was named after the most beloved player in franchise history.
Eagles honored guests and special VIPs hang out in the Brian Dawkins tent and wait for the players to come over and greet them. These millionaire athletes aren’t required to do it, but they all take the time — and they always have a welcoming smile on their face.
“It starts with the leadership at the top, with the type of team this is. Starting with Doug [Pederson] and Jeffrey [Lurie] and Don [Smolenski] and Howie [Roseman]. This is important to them,” said Julie Hirshey, Director of Community Relations for the Eagles. “Having high-character guys – I know it’s a football word – but it applies to all we do. They are grateful for the opportunities they have and really engaged in caring about the community and their roles in shaping it.”
Hirshey didn’t want to put an exact number on how many patients stroll into the Brian Dawkins tent, but there are “upwards of 500 at training camp” with various meet-and-greets sprinkled in throughout the year. Some players ask Hirshey to keep them updated on how the kids are doing, or tell her that they are adding the patient “to my prayer list.”
Lukas Kusters, aka “The Dutch Destroyer” is one shining example of that commitment. Carson Wentz stayed in touch with Lukas through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and wears an inspirational bracelet honoring him on gamedays. Unfortunately, Lukas died at the age of 10 in 2018, just 13 days after meeting Wentz.
“They all go through and talk to the kids, go out of their way to make them feel special,” said Trish Cartafalsa, whose son Ryan was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 when he was two. “I know he loves it. He loves every kind of interaction with athletes. He loves sports so much.”
Ryan had an anaplastic ependymoma, a type of brain and spinal tumor, and underwent two rounds of chemotherapy plus radiation treatments. They got involved as a “Hero Ambassador Family” for Alex’s Lemonade Stand about five years ago. Ryan has been cancer-free for 10 years and has participated in two Eagles training camps. He loves it.
In 2018, Ryan got to meet Jason Kelce and Chris Long and pose for pictures. This year, he received a high-five from Darren Sproles and practice-worn gloves from Josh Adams. The running back from Warrington ripped them right off his hands and gave them to Ryan.
“Anytime a video goes viral, and there is going to be a video of Carson connecting with a fan and everyone is going to see it, but it’s what people don’t see,” said Hirshey. “The other stuff that Carson and some of the other players do that doesn’t get posted to social media, that stuff happens every day.”
Nick Foles Creates Special Moment for Ryan
These life-changing moments happen all the time, says Hirshey, sometimes with the biggest stars on the team. Ryan’s mom referenced an emotional visit from former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles from 2018, the first training camp after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. It was the stuff of dreams.
“It was raining out and he just finished a press conference after a long practice,” said Trish. “He could have just gone inside the locker room and called it a day. Instead, he came over and signed autographs and took pictures. He didn’t have to do that.”
Ryan had watched Foles deliver the first championship in franchise history with his dad. Ben Cartafalsa has been the guiding force behind Ryan’s fandom and the two attended the Eagles-Panthers game last year at Lincoln Financial Field.
Like Lily Adkins and her family, the Cartafalsa family has used the experience as a way to network and bond with others dealing with the same unfortunate issues. Trish Cartafalsa has found comfort and happiness within the tight-knit community.
“You are your most true self around them,” said Trish. “Some people might tell me I’m overreacting or being crazy if Ryan tells me he has a headache, but they get it. They help ease my mind.”
And 10-year-old Ryan gets to ease his mind by watching his favorite team and hanging out with his new friends. He’s been cancer-free for eight years now.
“He sees the other kids and they start running around and having fun,” his mom said. “He gets to act like any other 10-year-old.”
Magee Rehabilitation & the Wheelchair Rugby Team
Another way the Eagles connect with downtrodden fans is through a partnership with Magee Rehabilitation Hospital at Jefferson University. The team got involved with the institution approximately 20 years ago after watching their wheelchair rugby team, the Magee Eagles. The Eagles provided the squad with actual NFL-approved football shirts — heavy polyester jerseys — and let them freely use the licensed Eagles name.
“They [the jerseys] were very hot to play in,” laughed Lauren DeBruicker, a veteran wheelchair rugby player for the Magee Eagles. “The Eagles have been incredibly supportive and welcoming to our team, and we appreciate that.”
DeBruicker suffered a spinal cord injury in a tragic car accident in 1991 that left her confined to a wheelchair. In an instant, her whole life had changed as the 19-year-old was a paraplegic. She went to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital to begin a rehab program and quickly found solace in playing wheelchair rugby. The rugby games take their minds off everything and provide a sense of normalcy.
“There’s a lot of smack talk, you know everyone’s names from playing so long, pretty fun community to be a part of,” said DeBruicker. “The game speed is pretty fast — lots of scoring, lots of turnovers. A typical score is 45-42.”
The team is filled with patients like DeBruicker, along with patients recovering from amputations, all gliding around an indoor basketball court at Carousel House in North Philadelphia. How do they play? It’s 4-on-4, with a roster of 15 total players. The game is split into four quarters, each lasting eight minutes with a match running one-and-a-half hours with halftime and stoppages.
There is also a specific ranking system in place to ensure all the patients get a fair shake. Each team has eight points to spread around their roster and each player gets assigned a ranking based on the severity of their injury — 3.5 points for the most functional, zero points for the least functional. The latter is usually reserved for those struggling with limited hand motion.
“There’s a broad range of abilities that can play the game,” said DeBruicker. “It’s part of the strategy, part of the fun.”
Lauren DeBruicker Meets Zach Ertz
Lauren DeBruicker jokes that it was the “luck of the draw” that she was selected to visit training camp, then admits that she has been fortunate enough to go down there a few times in recent years. She called it a “fun experience” and noted that nothing tops meeting the Eagles players. This year, she had the pleasure of chatting with tight end Zach Ertz, a fellow Stanford University alum.
“He asked me, what year did you graduate?,” said DeBruicker, now 47 years old. “And I almost didn’t want to answer. I just celebrated my 25th reunion.”
Last year, she attended practice and was able to get an Eagles helmet signed by both Nick Foles and Carson Wentz. DeBruicker makes it a point every year to ask for an autographed item and then donate it to the Philadelphia chapter of The Buoniconti Fund, a charity organization named after former Dolphins great Nick Buoniconti that is dedicated to curing paralysis.
The Foles-Wentz autographed helmet fetched $1,000 at the chapter’s silent auction. Buoniconti died on July 30 and the Dolphins have announced they’ll be adorning their helmets with honorary decals. The Eagles play the Dolphins on December 1 in Miami.
“I get something signed every year and donate it. It’s really nice to be able to turn a $30 football into a $200 donation,” said DeBruicker. “It’s a fun way to turn a really good experience into something generous for the community.”
Just like their work with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the entire process is a collaborative effort between Magee and the Eagles.
“We love being able to do that for our fans. We love being able to give back to the community in a positive and meaningful way,” added Hirshey. “We want to be proactive in our community service. When we get to roll up our sleeves and give back, that’s how we want to do it.”
Magee Eagles: National Champions?
The Magee Eagles, much like their NFL namesake, are one of the most successful wheelchair rugby teams in the country. They are coming off back-to-back appearances in the United States Quad Rugby Association’s national championship, falling just short in the 2017 title game in Phoenix and again at Rockford, Illinois in 2018. They advanced out of a group of the 16 top teams in the nation.
“It’s very competitive,” said DeBruicker. “Some of the wheelchair rugby hotshots get recruited and relocated to play for Division 1 teams.”
Games get heated and the sport has earned the scary moniker “Murderball.” The National Tournament is slated for November 16-17 at RiverWinds Community Center in Deptford, New Jersey. The Magee Eagles practice on Tuesday evenings and travel as far away as Baltimore and New York for weekend-long tournaments. Their regular season runs from October through March, including playoffs and nationals.
Back to DeBruckier’s visit to Eagles camp earlier this summer for a minute. Inside the Brian Dawkins tent was where she felt a feeling of togetherness, a real sense of community with her fellow wheelchair athletes.
“It’s really fun to see the players up close,” said DeBruicker. “They thank us for coming to practice and we’re thanking them for letting us come to practice.”
(This was Part Two of a series exploring the Eagles charity partnerships with Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital).
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