Coach Wags’ legacy lives on

The foundation board and volunteers from last year’s Rock the Block, who say the Stogie Joe’s staffers are angels for all the hard work they put in on these special days.

Photo Provided by The Coach Wags Memorial Foundation

John Wagner’s emails come with a telling signature: “We’re gonna fight, ‘til we can’t fight no more. We’re gonna lie down. We’re gonna bleed a while. We’re gonna get back up, and we’re gonna fight some more!” It fits – he and his wife, Stephanie, and his cousin, Monique Costa and her husband, Frank – started a memorial charity foundation after John’s father, John Wagner Jr., fell victim to head and neck cancer in July 2008. Coach Wags, as he was lovingly known, fought the affliction as hard as he loved the children he coached, and the four-member-board of the Coach Wags Memorial Foundation is ready to raise more money Sunday at the Fourth Annual Rock the Block party outside of Stogie Joe’s Tavern, 1801 E. Passyunk Ave.

“We were looking for a way to honor my father’s memory,” said Wagner, the third, a Fairmount resident and retail manager in King of Prussia. “We’re a new charity and we’re not really going to raise the bar of research or raise the money the Cancer Society does. [But] $50,000 has been raised and donated to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) since 2010. We are four people with full-time jobs and kids and sports activities – it’s something we’re very proud of.”

At Rock the Block, on East Passyunk Avenue between Moore and Mifflin streets from 3 to 8 p.m., $40 gets you all access – eat and drink as much as you want. They’re hoping that DJ Johnny Looch and The Business, as musical entertainment, will draw a bigger turnout than ever before.

“More and more people are becoming aware of [the Foundation] so we’re getting bigger crowds. Everyone, all the cousins come out. It’s good to see everybody,” Wagner said.

Monique Costa might live in Mullican Hill, N.J. these days, but she claims South Philly as where she grew up – at 18th and Shunk streets.

“I don’t claim Jersey, I claim Philly. And nobody comes together like South Philly,” she said. “There’s something about South Philly, be it weddings or funerals, there’s always a true sense of family, and they never let you down.”

The direction of the foundation was the earliest hurdle – how would they honor their father and uncle best? At first they considered a scholarship to St. Josephs’ Preparatory School, where the patriarch coached for years, but they ran up against the realities of legalities and decided, instead, to focus on children suffering from cancer.

“When my children were born, I always felt so lucky because they were healthy,” Costa, mother to 11-year-old Frankie and eight-year-old Nicolas, said. “I always wanted to give back to the community for those who do not have healthy children. When my children were born, [I said] ‘Thank you, God, now what can I do?’”

Enter Dr. Meghan Marsac, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of training at CHOP’s Center for Injury Research & Prevention. When the Wags Foundation board heard about her Cellie Coping Kit for Children with Cancer, they knew they’d landed on the right partnership.

“Parents of children with cancer have to become super parents to support their children and the rest of their family. These families inspired me to think of a way that we could try to make their job a little bit easier,” Marsac explained.

The Cellie Coping Kit is a sown puppet with a zipper mouth that holds cards representing emotions, and it comes with nearly 100 tips for caregivers related to cancer-related stresses.

“Our very first kits were created by my aunt, Anne Vinsel in Salt Lake City, UT, and me. When I saw how my patients responded to the kit and how useful it was, I partnered with the oncology psychosocial and medical teams to conduct research on the kit and to make the kit available to more patients,” Marsac added.

Thanks to the Wagner Memorial Foundation, the kit, which used to be $25, is free and given to every diagnosed patient in CHOP’s care network free of charge.

“Because of the Coach Wags Foundation… to date, we have provided kits to nearly 550 children with cancer at CHOP. Several other foundations have followed Coach Wags Foundation’s lead and donated kits to children at other hospitals, as well,” Marsac said.

Costa’s husband, Frank, just worked on merging youth football leagues in New Jersey, and the new head of the league email blasted parents and families about Rock the Block. The response was shocking – families they barely knew were posting stories of their own child’s experience with the Cellie kit.

“It’s crazy how it’s all around us, and it’s really sad but if we can just help one kid to have a smile or be able to talk about how they feel,” it will have all been worth it, reasoned Monique.

“Luckily, they don’t have as much knowledge as we do about the severity,” Wagner, a proud father to John, the fourth, a seven-year-old, said. “But, at the same time, everyone’s poking and prodding at them, and they don’t know why. Once we met Dr. Marsac, we knew that this was what we wanted to help with.”

They also toss money into CHOP’s pot for Life Care Group, a volunteer group that helps decorate at Christmas, conduct Easter Egg hunts and generally lift the spirits of nearly-permanent CHOP patients.

As his son sees it, his father fought cancer with characteristic might, just as passionately as he coached.

“He fought the whole time. He fought tooth-and-nail, such a tough son-of-a-gun,” his son said. As for coaching, Wagner noted “he’d build a relationship with everyone on the team. It didn’t make a difference if you were the greatest or just trying out – he genuinely cared about all of his players and would kick ya in the [butt] if he had to.”

They grew up in Southwest Philly even though his mother grew up at Fifth and Greenwich streets, went to “Southern,” 2101 S. Broad St., and retired after 25 years of service at the UPS on Oregon Avenue. His father worked around the clock, seven days a week as a Post Office worker in Media and would often take a catnap “before football practice. He would sleep under the bridge under I-95 before practice” to catch up on sleep and, his son says he “went above and beyond – we didn’t want for anything.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Photo Provided by The Coach Wags Memorial Foundation