The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in 54 children suffers from autism spectrum disorder. Boys are four times more likely to get diagnosed, usually by age five. The numbers are mind-blowing, but one NFL franchise is trying to stem the tide.
The Philadelphia Eagles Autism Foundation announced $3.1 million in funding for 18 cutting-edge new research projects — eight pilot studies, 10 community grants — aimed at using critical resources for “transformational change” in the field of autism, according to the foundation’s first executive director Ryan Hammond. She quickly credited team owner Jeffrey Lurie for putting this “lifetime disease” on the front burner.
They want to see tangible change and prioritize research over printing blank checks. That includes embracing basic science and clinical research, like partnering with top experts and creating “impact scores” based on measurable outcomes.
“Autism is often underfunded,” Hammond told Heavy.com. “And because of Jeffrey’s personal connection, we didn’t want this to be transactional, not just write the check and give it to an organization based on your affinity for an organization. Jeffery really wanted to be intentional with it and have our work funded back to research.”
Lurie’s personal connection rests with his brother who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 1957. The organization has taken great lengths to support the autism community as evidenced by its recent COVID-19 vaccination clinic, which administered shots to more than 1,000 people. The pandemic also forced the Eagles to reimagine how they conducted their grant review process for funding their many pilot studies and community projects.
“We’re looking for those brilliant minds,” Hammond said, “and those top researchers who are in that same content area to really provide credentialing and validation that these are the top programs we are funding.”
Zoom calls became the new normal in 2020, although the vetting process remained strict under Dr. Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom. He is the lead scientific advisor from the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and works in tandem with 16 nationally-recognized researchers from all over the world.
Hammond described an intense grant review process that saw 47 letters of intent get whittled down to 28 full proposals. Dr. DiCicco-Bloom and his team must analyze and tear holes in every single proposal, to find strengths and weaknesses — and decide which projects best move the needle for autism.
“This past year reminded us how precious life is and how important the work of the Eagles Autism Foundation is toward bettering the lives of others,” Lurie said. “We are especially proud to fund this year’s research projects and community grants, which have demonstrated to us the potential to transform the field of autism for families today and for those in the future.”
The top eight proposals were awarded research projects, like a precision cell-based therapy for seizures (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and an emotional expressivity study (Drexel University). Another 10 community grants were doled out to a wide range of worthy organizations like the Elwyn Foundation in Media, PA. They have pioneered a translator’s program, or interpretation services due to caregiver involvement for families who do not speak English as their first language.
“Our researchers give a progress report that is actually reviewed after Year 1 and their Year 2 funding is contingent on it,” Hammond said. “Are the researchers doing everything they said they were doing? How do you know that they are strong and are going to be transformational? And that’s how our scientific process was born, with the goal to have measurable outcomes for every dollar we invest.”
The Eagles have raised $10 million for autism research in only three years, thanks largely to their annual Eagles Autism Challenge which saw 3,000 virtual participants and 284 fundraising teams this year. Not bad for a disorder that has been mostly underfunded and misunderstood.
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Super Bowl Rings, Philly Specials, COVID-19 Vaccinations
Lincoln Financial Field never looked so good as it did on March 27, 2021. Or sounded so quiet.
The Eagles administered more than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccinations during a free clinic that day to families dealing with autism. For one appreciative dad, the scene at the stadium was both surreal and appropriate.
Jim Gillece has two sons – Trey, age 20; Griffin, age 18 – “on the spectrum” and feared for the sensory overload associated with his boys getting an anti-virus shot in the arm. Then the Eagles called and it was no longer a concern. They thought of everything.
His family was given a PowerPoint presentation ahead of the first dose showing them which entrance to enter, where to walk and park, plus mini footballs were handed out as stress relievers. You could hear birds chirping, per Gillece, and there was a smiling face at the top of every escalator.
“Pulling out the autism card,” Gillece said. “Sometimes in life you need to rely upon what is actually needed for your child but most of the time you walk around in a world where special needs doesn’t necessarily matter to a lot of people so in this case, it felt very appropriate. These children, or young adults, are special. They have unique needs for the delivery of the vaccination so it felt very appropriate.”
They will get their second shot on April 29, just in time for the family to watch Griffin become the first high school student with autism to graduate from Devon Prep. Par for the course for Gillece who has been feeling that welcoming embrace from the Eagles for a very long time, highlighted by an envious trip to Super Bowl LII and a surprise fitting for a championship ring.
The ring story still causes Gillece to get choked up, even on the phone. His oldest son, Trey, had been hounding him for an authentic Super Bowl ring — all blinged out with 219 diamonds, 17 green sapphires. Gillece tried to order one but the knockoffs looked cheap and the real deal was hard to find. Randomly, the diehard Eagles fan was greeted by Lurie on a video-conference call and the billionaire owner let him know he beat out six million entrants to earn an authentic player’s ring.
“Next day, we held a pep rally at my son’s school [Vanguard School in Malvern],” Gillece said. “Three hundred kids with autism and each kid got to take a picture with the ring and cheerleaders. That’s all the Eagles. The things they do in the community that you don’t hear about day to day. Jeffrey Lurie’s passion for this is real.”
And the Gillece family has a thousand stories about that passion. They sat front row in Minneapolis when Nick Foles called the famed “Philly Special.” Trey and Griffin were selected to lead the Eagles out of the tunnel versus the New England Patriots in 2019. And Zach Ertz once gave them the “smelly” dirt-stained jersey right off his back following a sliding touchdown in a preseason game.
“Why do they do it?,” Gillece said. “I think it’s because they are pretty serious about it.”
Madden NFL Gets Eagles Autism Challenge Update
One other fun anecdote shared by Hammond had to do with Madden NFL, the popular football video-game title from EA Sports. The makers of the game are always looking to embellish it with authentic game-experiences, via “Easter eggs” or things only diehards might pick up on.
This year, Madden NFL shows the Eagles Autism Challenge logo painted in the end zone. It’s a small tribute but one that certainly came at the urging from the man upstairs.
“If Jeffrey Lurie didn’t decide he wants to make a difference in this area, then that wouldn’t be on Madden,” Gillece said. “Is that changing the world because millions of people all over the world are seeing it on Madden? Probably not. But does it create more awareness and exposure? Yeah, it does, and that’s all because Jeffrey Lurie said I want to try and make a difference in this area.”