In early October, just after the Eagles finished up practice, Owner Jeffrey Lurie went up to the Draft Room to make a special call.
Joined in the room by Ryan Hammond, the executive director of the Eagles Autism Challenge, Lurie connected through video with Jim and Pattie Gillece, who were unaware of what they were about to be told.
The Gilleces were among the nearly six million entries in the World Championship Ring Sweepstakes that raised more than $567,000 for the Eagles Autism Challenge. They thought they were finalists who were going to make their case to a panel as to why they should be given the final ring. No pleading was needed. Lurie was there to tell them that they were the winners.
Truth be told, the Gilleces would have been able to make a compelling presentation.
In February 2005, Jim Gillece attended Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Florida along with a group of close friends. They arrived at the game by taking a boat across the St. Johns River. ESPN was broadcasting live from outside Alltel Stadium. Gillece and his friends started doing Eagles chants and were so loud that it interrupted the show. Host Chris Berman turned to Eagles Hall of Fame quarterback Ron Jaworski and asked if he brought his friends to the game. Gillece, who was wearing a Jaworski jersey, received a flood of calls and texts from family and friends who saw him on television.
Thirteen years later, when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Gillece was at the game once again. As green and white confetti fell from the rafters following the historic victory, Gillece and his wife gathered their three children – sons Trey and Griffin, and daughter Kendall – for a group selfie. Everyone was beaming with joy.
The two championship games serve as bookmarks for what has been a roller-coaster journey for the Gillece family.
Jim Gillece was a successful pharmaceutical executive who was on the verge of accepting a job overseas when he and Pattie were about to have Griffin, who is now 15 years old. They were meeting with a neurologist who told them that he believed Trey, who was almost 3 years old at the time, had Fragile X syndrome. Trey was diagnosed with autism. Griffin is on the autism spectrum as well. That meeting served as a wake-up call for Jim as he realized he had to change his career path and focus on providing the resources and support needed to raise two boys who are on the spectrum.
"I think it's made me a better person. I listen better. I empathize better. I am able to understand where people are coming from in a different way. You never know what's going on in someone else's life," says Jim, a gregarious man, who at 6-4 and 240 pounds has a heart that somehow outweighs his larger-than-life personality. "It toughens you up as a parent. It requires you to work closely with your significant other to coordinate and plan."
The Gillece family, who lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, loves to visit Ocean City, New Jersey in the summertime. Back at the start of the decade, the lifeguard on duty had to pull everyone using a boogie board out of the water because of dangerous conditions. Trey and Griffin began to argue with the lifeguard. They didn't understand what was going on. Jim witnessed the interaction and raced over. He immediately told the lifeguard that the boys have autism. Jim explained to his boys that the lifeguard is the boss on the beach and that they had to listen to his instructions. A couple of years later, the same lifeguard was on duty when he saw the Gillece brothers. Before he alerted the swimmers to exit the water, he gave Jim a heads-up. That story highlights the need to educate and raise awareness of autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism prevalence in the United States has increased by 15 percent over the past two years from one in 68 children to one in 59. That stat is difficult for Jim Gillece to comprehend.
"It's gotten to the point where statistically, you could ask all of the fans at the Linc to stand if they know someone with autism and everyone would stand," he says. "We have a chronic ailment that is increasing at an alarming rate. Let's try to at least flatline the number then turn it around. Something is happening. We don't know why. Every time that number gets lower, it's costing society money, time, and anxiety."
Jim Gillece retired from the business world to fully devote his time, money, and energy to fight autism. He and Pattie started The Gillece Family Foundation.
Trey, who is at The Vanguard School in Malvern, Pennsylvania which specializes in educating students with autism, recently sang Bohemian Rhapsody at a concert to raise money for a program that pairs special needs students with professional musicians. The Gillece Family Foundation matched the $12,000 raised to provide a total donation of $24,000.
Griffin attends Devon Prep and the school has hosted a series of fundraisers, including a flag football game between the students and faculty. On Monday night before the Eagles take on Washington, Lurie will present the Gillece family with the Super Bowl ring that has their name on it. The Gillece Family Foundation plans to award the Eagles Autism Challenge with a check for at least $20,000 in return.
And the ring is not going to be locked away in a safe or hidden from public view. On Tuesday, it will be taken to the Vanguard School so that every student can get his or her picture taken with it.
"One of the most satisfying parts is sharing the ring with other Eagles fans. To look at that ring with your name on it, it's a responsibility to be able to share that with other fans," says Jim, who recalls sitting up in Section 712 of Veterans Stadium watching the Eagles while growing up.
Jim Gillece admires Lurie's courage in acknowledging that he has a family member on the spectrum and using his platform to make a difference. Gillece is a man on a mission and the Super Bowl Championship ring is something that he will wield to turn that autism statistic in the opposite direction.
"When you're sitting on that rocking chair, you want to make sure you did the best that you could and that you left a mark," Jim says. "It really is going to take a community to raise these children with autism. Parents need more than what they have at home. They need extra services that some people can't afford. They need job opportunities. They need housing for their children."
"What people don't realize is that children and adults on the autism spectrum, they're really bright. They're really sweet. They have so much to offer emotionally and in every way possible," Lurie says. "We just have to keep trying to solve the puzzle to get more and more out of them, but they already have so much to offer."