PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tom Coughlin and Graeme McDowell share an Irish heritage and the highest achievement in their sports. One has a U.S. Open title and delivered the clinching point in the Ryder Cup, the other has two Super Bowl titles as coach of the New York Giants.
Only when McDowell opened another restaurant, this one down the road from PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, did they discover a similar passion.
They sat at a table a few hours before Nona Blue was filled to capacity Wednesday on opening night, swapping stories about their foundations, each geared toward helping sick children without neglecting the financial and emotion burden on the entire family.
What brought them together was McDowell wanting to be a good neighbor in a new town, and Coughlin already having done his part.
“When you come into an area, if you want to establish yourself, giving back is a great starting place,” McDowell said.
The original Nona Blue opened three years ago in Orlando. For the next tavern, McDowell and business partners Joe Davi and Bill Bona had what amounted to a dress rehearsal last week for the staff. The food was complimentary. All they asked was for guests to leave a gratuity that would go to a local charity.
Jamie Baird, who handles the marketing, found the Jay Fund Foundation that Coughlin began in 1996 when he was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It seemed like a good fit.
The tips that night came out to $15,000.
“When Graeme got ready to open the restaurant, the first thing they did was try to give back,” Coughlin said. “And when they were talking in the community about giving back, we were fortunate that they named the Jay Fund Foundation as the charity of choice. So it worked out super for us.
“They were practicing to open,” said Coughlin, still relying on football terms. “When I heard it was $15,000, I couldn’t believe it.”
McDowell, raised in Northern Ireland, did his homework on Coughlin’s foundation and the man who won 170 games in 20 years as an NFL coach. He even read Coughlin’s book, “Earn the Right to Win.”
And yes, he made sure he was on time — which means early — for the opening.
“People were very passionate about coach’s foundation, and they gave generously,” McDowell said.
Coughlin’s inspiration for his foundation was Jay McGillis, a safety who played for Coughlin at Boston College when he died of leukemia in 1992. He made up for his lack of size by working harder than anyone else. He was Coughlin’s kind of guy. And his death, along with the effect on parents and five siblings, stayed with the coach.
“The experience we had with Jay and his family, I just knew we would give back and it would be in the spirit of Jay,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin is still popular in Jacksonville, having taken the Jaguars to the AFC title game in 1996 in just their second season. He was fired after a third straight losing season in 2002, and he was hired by the Giants in 2004.
Two major hospitals were concerned that would be the end of the Jay Fund. Instead, contributions increased when Coughlin said he was leaving it there, and he started a branch of the Jay Fund in New York.
Only when he met McDowell did Coughlin realize The G-Mac Foundation was for children’s medical research. One aspect of the foundation brings Irish children and their families to Orlando during the holidays for some happy times.
“That’s what coach’s foundation looks after,” McDowell said. “It’s not only the victim, but the siblings and the families, and the fact it tears them apart. It’s a financial strain. So the idea of bringing families to Orlando is just to put smiles on their faces and put families back together.”
It put a smile on Coughlin’s face just listening to McDowell speak.
“Bringing kids to Disney,” he said. “Can you imagine the look on their faces, coming over from Ireland, the whole family?”