Turn on your national sports channel on any given day, chances are you’ll hear about a sports star getting into some kind of trouble. A DWI, an incident at a gentlemans club, drug charges, and even worse. There are over 1,500 players in the NFL and countless more staff for each organization. I can assure you that all these people aren’t bad. In fact, a majority of them are good, honest people. So why don’t we hear more about them? Is it because people like to hear more negative as opposed to positive? Or is it that its “sexier” to report about an assault as opposed to an athlete devoting time to his community? I don’t have the answer to either question. The only thing I can say for certain, there’s a man in the northeast that’s doing some pretty awesome things.
My story starts in October of 2012. The Eagles were struggling pretty bad that year. Like most fans of struggling teams, I was getting teased by family, friends, and co-workers. On a whim, I sent an email to Dave Spadaro, Eagles media reporter. The email was short and simple. It basically said, although the team is struggling, there’s a family in SD that watches each game, every week, regardless of wins and losses. I went on to say that football was more than just a game for us. It was a time that my bride, my 4 children, and myself spent time together. When I sent this email, I never intended to get any response. I got much more than a response.
Couple days later, Dave responds to me and tells me that he forwarded my email to Don Smolenski, president of the Philadelphia Eagles. I was shocked that Dave read it; I was flabbergasted that he took the time to share it with Mr. Smolenski. My response was as best as I can remember was simple; thank you and please don’t confuse my intentions. I never asked for anything in that email. I simply wanted someone there to know that this family of 6 in a small South Dakota town, was/is loyal. Dave asked me for my home address as Mr. Smolenski wanted to send my family something nice. Few days later I received a personalized letter from Mr. Smolenski and my son received a LeSean McCoy jersey. It’s very hard to describe the feeling I got sharing that experience with my then 11 year old son. Emails were exchanged between Dave and I and eventually I was sharing emails with Mr. Smolenski.
After sharing several emails with Mr. Smolenski, I had a conversation with my bride. Due to previous mistakes in my sons younger years, my relationship with him was less than stellar. I had corrected those mistakes yet I felt he hadn’t fully forgiven me for past decisions. My beautiful, understanding bride agreed to allow me to take my son to Philadelphia for the home opener in September of 2013. I then shared this news with my new favorite president. I emailed him and told him my son and I were flying out for the opener. I asked if we could have the opportunity to meet him, shake his hand, and thank him personally for the letter and jersey. Not only did he agree to meet with us he said ” don’t worry about tickets, they’re on us!” Imagine telling your child that his first NFL game was going to be on the other side of the country and he was going to meet the president of the team. This happened in April of 2012.
We spent the next several months dreaming about the possibilities of what could happen when we were there. With each passing day, the ideas got more and more extravagant. For him, it was a vacation away from school and a chance to see his favorite football team play. For me, it was a chance to make right so many mistakes I had made in the past. It was a chance for some one on one time with my favorite oldest son. A chance to right some wrongs and be the father I always knew I could be. This was far more than a football trip for me. Let’s fast forward to September of 2013. We traveled 100 miles south on a Thursday after school and work to catch our flight. We flew out around 5:00 am that following day. From there, we flew to Chicago. We had bought tickets to take the tour of Lincoln Financial Field and we were both afraid that we were going to miss our tour due to delays at the airport. Well, we did miss that tour but 3 years later we got a tour of The Linc that far surpassed anything we ever dreamt of.
Flying to Philly with my son that day, just the two of us, will be something I won’t forget anytime soon. First thing after landing was to head to the hotel. We checked in, put our bags away and walked over to our favorite stadium. We past Citizens Bank Park and looked at the statues. We talked about going to a baseball game on Monday. We finally found our way to The Linc. Looking at that stadium through the eyes of a 12 year old was priceless. He smiled from ear to ear as I shared stories of 4th and 26 and former Eagle greats. I specifically remember telling him that there is nothing like 70,000 people screaming the Eagles fight song after a TD. I was so excited for him to experience a Sunday at the Linc. After a few photos, it was off to eat. After a quick bite, we decided to head to the hotel room due to jet lag, and just flat out being tired from a long day of travel. Little did we know what was behind our door when we opened it. Sitting on our bed was a clear White Bag with the Eagles logo on it. A term my son coined “The Swag bag”. We couldn’t even open it at first because we were jumping up and down the room like we had just won the lottery. We were laughing, hugging, and I really tried to just stop and enjoy the moment with him. Finally we opened the bag (only after several pictures, and a phone call to mom at home) Inside were 2 tickets to the game on Sunday, 2 tickets to the Temple game on Saturday, 2 sideline passes to the Eagles game, a couple of hats, a gift card to the pro shop, and other miscellaneous items. There was also a personalized letter to my son and I welcoming us to The City of Brotherly Love. How’s that for a start to the trip?!?!
Saturday morning we took a tour of Citizens Bank Park followed by the Temple game. Both awesome experiences. Saturday night we got an email from Dave Spadaro asking us if we wanted a private tour of the Nova Care Complex where the Eagles practice. Our game day experience started out with that private tour. My son, myself, and Dave Spadaro. Awesome….just awesome. Dave was so nice taking us from place to place inside the Nova Care taking pictures for us and letting us enjoy the experience. He’s a genuinely nice guy who really wanted us to enjoy ourselves. That’s exactly what we did! Dave gave us a ride back to the Linc and told us to meet him outside the pro shop at a certain time. So we did. Next thing I know, we are running down the sideline to the back of the end zone. My son was running so fast I couldn’t keep up with him! He was running as if his 40 time was being clocked in Indy.
From there, we stood on the field and enjoyed the sights and sounds of pregame. We were introduced to so many people. Darwin Walker, AJ Feely, Howie Roseman, cheerleaders, Sal Palantonio, Merrill Reese. Later we would meet Jeremiah Trotter, chat with Adam Caplan and even met NFL great, Chuck Bednarick. I’ll never forget meeting Concrete Charlie. We were asked “Do you want to meet Chuck Bednarik?” my response was very simple “Yes”. We walked over to the Iron Man and were introduced to greatness. He posed for a picture with us, shook my hand, and put my son in a head lock. Just thinking of that, puts a smile on my face. We walked away from that meeting and my son says ”you know dad, for an old guy, he’s really strong!” My son had no idea what had just happened and how fortunate we both were to meet such a man. He now does after watching old games, reading, and listening to stories. From there my son would catch balls off the net as the kickers were practicing. Me, well I just stood there and smiled at him with approval.
Next thing we know, Mr. Smolenski is walking right towards us. I remember my hands being sweaty and wiping the sweat off my palms as he approached us. I remember being nervous. I remember being star struck. Finally, we shook hands, posed for a picture, and visited for a while. We thanked him for everything and beings he’s an incredibly busy man, he was on his way. My son and I would stand around for a few more minutes, embracing the sights and sounds of Sunday afternoon. I remember walking up the steps to our seats and wishing we had a little more time to visit with Mr. Smolenski. I’ve told him in person and via email countless times how thankful we are, yet I don’t feel like I can say it enough. Since that day, my son has been my best friend and vice versa. How do you thank someone for that?
The Eagles lost that game on a last second field goal. We sat in our seats and watched the crowd diminish with each passing second. I told my son to appreciate what just happened. To make memories like this with his ,children. To not take anything for granted. Mostly, not to make the mistakes I did. There were 68,998 disappointed fans in that stadium that afternoon. There were also a father and a son from a small town in South Dakota that just finished up a trip of a lifetime. The saying goes “Any Given Sunday” Any Given Sunday the Miracle at the Meadowlands can happen. The “Catch” can happen. The Miracle at the New Meadowlands can happen. 4th and 26 can happen. The Immaculate Reception can happen. You know what else can happen? A father and son can become best friends for life. That’s what happened that Sunday. With the help of some very special people and a football team, a reconciliation happened. A father and son bonded and that’s far more important than a football game.
Cool story right? Father and son travel across country, meet some pretty awesome people, watch a football game, and become best friends. It is a pretty neat story. Fortunately, that’s not where my story ends. My son and I came home and shared stories, pictures, and smiles with my bride, and 3 other children. You can imagine how happy everyone was for us. I remember my bride saying how she’d like to meet Mr. Smolenski one day to thank him for what he did for her husband and son. I told her “you never know, you just may be able to” I never thought we’d see Mr. Smolenski again. Well, I was wrong; very wrong! The Eagles were playing the Vikings in December that same year. We went to the usual fan sites to find tickets. We struggled finding tickets with 6 seats in a row. I decided to email our favorite president again asking for some help. Like before, his response was “tickets are on us!” How about that?!?! Time to pack up family because now we are going to Minneapolis!!!
We make the roughly 4 hour drive to the Twin Cities and get a hotel room Saturday night. The girls get some new pink Eagles gear and my oldest sat on the window sill trying to catch a glimpse of the Eagles plane. He never did get that glimpse but he did get to shake Chip Kelly’s hand the next day. He also got to see Mr. Smolenski again. Mr. Smolenski would come up to the stands and pose for a picture with my entire family. My daughter, being the sweet little thing she is, spent some time making a homemade bracelet for Mr. Smolenski. She handed it to him, he put it on and said “Thanks! I have something for you as well” he proceeded to hand us 6 sideline passes. The 7 of us spent some time visiting in the stands as our favorite president took some time to get to know my entire family. Those few minutes were just as gratifying for me as the trip to Philly. Unfortunately, the Eagles lost that game as well. It was OK though. My family and I had a small vacation together. Making memories just the 6 of us laughing, smiling, and just enjoying each others company. We enjoyed the 4 hour drive so much, we decided to extend it out a little further the next year.
September 2014 we find ourselves headed to Indianapolis, IN for the Eagles vs Colts game on Monday Night Football. Before the game Monday night, we made a stop in Indiana to see some cousins we hadn’t seen in years. We went to Canton, OH and saw the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More family memories. Pretty cool right? Grab a tissue. As we sit outside the gates at Lucas Oil Stadium, the rain is starting to come down a little harder. The kids are growing a little restless to get inside. I’ve got one hand holding my oldest daughters hand and the other holding my youngest daughters hand. My bride is trying to keep all 4 children warm with hugs. Finally, the doors open and we are in. As fate would have it, we see Mr. Smolenski walking through the stadium. My oldest catches up to him and there we stand, visiting with our favorite president again. My oldest daughter hands him a very fancy homemade bracelet. As she’s handing it to him, he drops to a knee and reaches inside his suit coat. My daughter hands it to him with a smile on her face, and a gleam in her eye. Mr. Smolenski politely accepts my little girls gift and says “thank you. This one broke on me”. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the bracelet she gave to him in Minneapolis. So not only did he wear her bracelet that day in Minneapolis, he saved it . My bride and I were almost in tears watching this take place in front of us. Pretty impressive for sure. The Eagles ended up winning that game but the games have taken second fiddle to family and our interactions with Mr. Smolenski. We ended up driving 6 hours out of our way on the way home to pick up my brides sister so she could stay with us for a week or so. We wouldn’t have made that drive had we not been in Indy. Yet another reason to be thankful to our favorite president.
To recap; my son and I went to Philly for a once in a lifetime experience. My family of 6 went to Minneapolis and then to Indianapolis. Each time our experience so fantastic. Pictures, and lifelong memories for the 6 of us. All made possible by Don Smolenski, president of the Philadelphia Eagles. In February of 2015 my beautiful bride and I were talking about going to Philly in September. The idea was to drive the 23 hour, 1,400+ miles and take a family vacation. The routine was much the same as the others. I sent an email and Mr. Smolenksi’s response was “Hope to see you and your family in Philly” After talking about all the details, we decided to make the jaunt. We started saving and budgeting at that point. Flash forward to August. My lovely bride and I are talking and decided it’s just not going to work this time around. Money is tight and our oldest started high school. Disappointing for sure but the right move. Well, the next day I got an email. Attached in that email was 6 tickets to the Eagles Cowboys game at Lincoln Financial Field! Right then and there, I knew we were going. With the help of an banker at our awesome local bank, this trip was now a reality.
12:30 central standard time we left our small town of 22,000 people for Philadelphia, PA. 2 adults, 4 kids, one epic road trip!!! We packed our vehicle with a 12 pack of coke, 3 cases of water, and a bunch of junk food that certain isn’t healthy for anyone! We were all excited for the game but my bride and I were probably more excited for the journey. We drove 600+ miles that first day and stopped in a small town in Illinois. After some pizza it was time for some shut eye. We made it through the rest of Illinois, all of Indiana and Ohio the next day. We spent that night roughly 4 hours outside of Philadelphia. Eastern PA was so beautiful. There’s so many trees and the scenery was just flat out incredible. Heck, my kids even put down their iPad, and phones to take in what they were seeing. Friday morning we finished the drive and checked into our hotel in Philly. Like the last time, I took my family to The Linc for pictures and stories. This time, we got our tour.
Not only did we get our tour, we got a private tour. Mr. Smolenski arranged a private tour for my family and I. Norman and Dru gave us the tour. It’s really a daunting task putting this tour into words. It started out at the front entrance. Norman and Dru gave us some hats to wear which was super nice. From there, we jumped on some golf carts. They took us to the field, press room, locker room (both home and away) and even the tunnel the players run out of to get to the field. As I’m standing in the tunnel, I stop and look around. They were making some changes to the tunnel so music was blaring. There were neon lights flickering on and off. For a brief second, if only very brief, I felt like a real NFL football player. I’m 6 feet nothing and 200 pounds. A rotund 200 pounds at that. That’s the closest I’ll ever feel like a football player and it was amazing! We took pictures on the field and stood in the lockers of some of the best athletes in the world. It was just amazing. Dru even shared a nice little spot to see the ocean with my wife. And just like that, an hour and a half goes by and our tour is over. Norman and Dru were nothing short of amazing and my family and I are forever grateful to them.
Saturday we took the historical tour of the great city and enjoyed more family time. Sunday is game day and the 6 of us are all decked out in our new Eagles garb. We visited with our friend again on the field for some time. My kids gave him pictures and yes, another bracelet. We took pictures and visited and much like our previous experiences, it was incredible. This time I decided to pay less attention to the players on the field and more with what was going on the sidelines. A gentleman and his wife approached me. They said, “are you the family that drove from South Dakota for the game?” that sparked a conversation that led to some pretty awesome things. I shared our story a little with him and asked him how he knew Mr. Smolenski. He said he had just met him that day. They were graduates from the same school and Mr. Smolenski and this gentleman had exchanged some emails and just like that, we are on the same sideline training stories about such a great man. Later, we noticed a little boy. It was pretty clear that this little boy was going through some medical issues. Mr. Smolenski presented him with a gift bag. He helped the little boy put on a jersey and there were other contents in the bag as well. We watched as he posed for pictures with that little boy as his mother stood by with tears rolling down her face. It was breathtaking to say the least.
The game came and went and the Eagles lost. We didn’t feel like they lost when we left though. Other victories were had that were bigger than football. The next day we drove to the ocean, the spot that Dru told us. It was nothing short of amazing. Just the 6 of us hanging out on the beach experiencing the raw power of the ocean. We took pictures, drew our names in the sand, and brought home half the beach with us! That was the 1st time my bride saw the ocean. I remember looking at her as her pretty blonde hair blew in the wind and she looked happy. At that time, it didn’t matter that a football game was played. It didn’t matter who won or lost. All that mattered is that we had each other. These “football” trips turn out to be much more than football for us. They are about spending time with people you love and making memories that last a lifetime. We’ve got to experience some pretty awesome things due to the generosity of a man 1,400+ miles away.
So when you turn your TV on tonight to catch highlights and you hear about the most recent arrest, I want you to think about our story. Think about the time you went to a game and didn’t see a fight or hear a swear word in the stands. The League is full of thousands of people doing awesome things. From the Make A Wish Foundation to just normal Joe’s and Jane’s like my family, people around the country are doing amazing things. Good old fashioned acts of kindness. The list of people doing amazing things around The League is long. For me and my family, there’s only one person who we feel deserves to be at the top of that list. What started with a simple email, culminated in a friendship. It led to a very strong relationship with my son. It led to a cross country road trip with my family. It led to memories that the 6 of us will never forget. It taught us that there is nice people out there doing nice things. It turned dreams into reality. It turned average Sundays into moments of tearful joy. All made possible by the act of kindness. Acts of kindness that you won’t see about on national TV. Acts of kindness that you won’t read about in national print.
I’m struggling with a fitting end to this. How do you properly but a bow tie on 3+ years of such joy? The only thing I can come up with is very simple. Thank you Don Smolenksi and Philadelphia Eagles. Thank you for giving my family something that you can never put a price tag on; family memories that will last an eternity. My bride thanks you. My four children thank you. From a small community of 22,000 people to the big city of Brotherly Love; its been a crazy journey and we are excited for the next chapter if there is indeed another chapter. For now, we will look at pictures, share stories and smile. We will sit down on Sundays with our food, our Eagles gear, our smiles, and our memories of past trips. One thing is for certain, come Sunday, there’s a small family of 6 in a small town in South Dakota that will always be cheering for our team; regardless of wins and losses. Other victories are made off the field and we are a prime example of that. There are good people doing good things in the National Football League. My family is very thankful for the good things that Mr. Smolenski and the Philadelphia Eagles have done for us.