It was a typical day down the shore in late June, but it wasn't really normal at all. A popular Sea Isle City, New Jersey, bar/restaurant was jumping, so much so that people lined up around the corner to get in. They waited for as long as needed because, well, what was inside was worth the wait. Rather, who was inside was worth the wait.
He wasn't wearing his Eagles uniform, but Jason Kelce was in uniform – that of a bartender ready to put in a hard day of work. Kelce was the featured attraction for an Eagles Autism Foundation fundraiser, and while there was uncertainty on Kelce's part about who would come out for the day – "It's Wednesday, middle of the day, who's going to show up?" Kelce said – it turned out to be something extraordinary: The event raised an amazing $50,000 with Kelce and his wife, Kylie, matching that number to bring in $100,000 for EAF in a single afternoon.
"Obviously, we're really passionate about EAC (the Eagles Autism Challenge), but just being involved in the community (is what is important for players)," Kelce said. "Anything that any player does to give back to the community, I'm in awe of, whether you're starting your own foundation, joining other foundations, giving your time, whatever. This is all part of the job, in my opinion. The Eagles have done a great job historically of that. I was brought up through that culture, so it's part of my job to show the young guys this is what it is to be an Eagle."
We know Jason Kelce as the Ultimate Eagles Warrior, right? A sixth-round draft pick in 2011, deemed "undersized" for the center position in the NFL, Kelce became an instant starter and not too long after that a mega-standout in the game. Since the time Kelce arrived in Philadelphia from the University of Cincinnati, he has been voted into four Pro Bowls, has three times been named an All-Pro center, is a Super Bowl Champion and is, of course, the author and orator of the greatest championship speech ever. He is, in short, a living legend who is still playing outstanding football in his 11th season.
But Kelce is also an incredibly charitable man for the Eagles organization and the Philadelphia community, and that's why Kelce is the team's 2021 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee. Starting right from his rookie year, Kelce sought opportunities to leverage his voice to lift up other organizations and help strengthen their message and impact. He has volunteered his time at a variety of organizations, including the Eagles Charitable Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House (where he joined individuals from their camp for a field day at Lincoln Financial Field), Bringing Hope Home (where he joined families from BHH at a community event to paint and carve pumpkins in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month), and Liberty USO (where he teamed up with Dietz & Watson to feed military families).
"To be named the Eagles' Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year is an incredible honor," Kelce said. "I've been blessed to come to work every day for the past 11 years doing what I love for a team and city that means the world to me. The Eagles organization is family and this city is home. It's a humbling experience to be recognized alongside men around the league who are making a difference in their communities."
The cause which has the most personal connection for Kelce is the Eagles Autism Foundation. When Kylie brought Jason home to meet her family for the first time, she knew there was one person's approval she'd need above all others. Kylie is an autism support teacher whose close family friend, Tim, was diagnosed with autism as a child. Jason passed with flying colors and so began his years-long support for the autism community and work with the Eagles Autism Foundation.
Since then, Kelce has become a passionate advocate for autism awareness and the Kelce family has been dedicated to the cause. Jason's support for EAF and autism awareness includes visiting Kylie's autism support classroom to inspire and connect with the students; attending the team's Huddle Up for Autism event with his family; promoting the Eagles Sensory Room at Lincoln Financial Field on NBC's Today Show to highlight the need for such spaces; not only attending every sensory-friendly Philadelphia Orchestra event the Eagles have hosted, but also playing Fly Eagles Fly on the saxophone alongside the internationally recognized Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center; and donating experiences such as "Story Time with Jason Kelce" and "Play a Round of Golf with Jason Kelce" to Eagles Radiothon raising $20,000.
"Jason Kelce is a man of character and honor who embodies everything that is great about the game of football," said Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. "Jason is a leader on and off the field who relentlessly attacks life with a tenacious sense of loyalty, selflessness, and grit. He pours his heart and soul into the game and does it all for his team, this city, and our fans. Away from the game, Jason has become a passionate advocate for autism awareness and research through the Eagles Autism Foundation and has dedicated his time to assisting various organizations and nonprofits in need. Jason is the ultimate pro who has solidified his rightful place as one of the most beloved athletes in the great sports history of Philadelphia."
"It's good to know that people think that I've been a good human being and done things the right way, giving back to the community and been a good teammate," Kelce said. "You just try to be the best person you can be and help out where you can and care about other people. I like to think that people think that I care about what they do and who they are and know that if they ever need something, I'm a person they can call and count on to help them out and listen or be there for them in any way I can.
"I don't try to be anything that I'm not and I think fans, especially in Philadelphia, appreciate that. I think it's a very 'real' relationship. I just try to be as much of myself as I can be, not trying to get a big head or anything like that because I certainly don't have one and really just engage with the fans in a real way as much as possible. I think they reciprocate that."
The fans have always loved Kelce for his mentality and his performance and leadership on the football field, and they've shown that same love for his embrace of the community. What happened on that summer afternoon in Sea Isle City, a quiet beach town during the day, was incredible.
And it was typical of Kelce, who gave it maximum effort, who made everyone who ordered a drink from him feel special, and who changed the lives of countless people who benefit from the Eagles Autism Foundation.
"To have Jason Kelce – a veteran, an iconic player – jump in and raise his hand and say 'yes' is so important. An organization wants to follow a leader. They want to emulate what that guy does and to know that he's going to shepherd and cultivate these younger players to understand that this is what you can do to change people's lives, that the Eagles are going to give you that opportunity is incredible. He's the best," said Ryan Hammond, the executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation, who talked to Kelce as the two were at a Sea Isle arcade playing with their children about having a fundraising event. Less than a week later, the joint was jumpin' with Eagles fans.
"He came from a place of 'yes.' He's embraced it and he's having fun. We wanted to have an event where Jason would enjoy the night and we worked with that, connected with the community, and look at this!"
The event was a winner, as is always the case with Kelce. Everything he touches turns to gold – on and off the field.
"I'm just who I am and I think that if you're genuine, that is always going to serve you well," Kelce said. "This is my home and I'm going to give back as much as I can and if I can make a positive difference in someone's life, that means everything to me."