Inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge kicks off at the Linc

The fundraiser collected close to $2.4 million by the end of the day, supporting Autism research in the region’s top medical institutions.

May showers couldn’t keep this year’s Super Bowl Champions and thousands of others from participating in the inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge at Lincoln Financial Field this weekend. Eagles mascot Swoop leads the way as hundreds kick off the Wawa Junior 15-mile ride. (Grace Maiorano)

Saturday’s scattered showers could not dissuade the Super Bowl champions, alongside thousands of others, from rallying at Lincoln Financial Field.

While the Lombardi Trophy shined splendidly on display, the more than 3,300 attendees did not simply gather on this year’s NFL titleholders’ turf for more celebration but rather in support of a special cause.

Kicking off their inaugural event, the Philadelphia Eagles and Lincoln Financial Group hosted the first-ever Eagles Autism Challenge this weekend, encompassing a series of fitness endeavors, including the Wawa Junior 15-Mile Ride, Wawa Short 30-Mile Ride, the Wawa Classic 50-Mile Ride and a five Below 5K Run/Walk geared toward families.

By the time festivities ended, the fundraiser had collected close to $2.4 million — 100 percent of which will go toward the region’s top autism research institutions, including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University and Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.

“We’re starting a legacy here — on the field and off the field,” Howie Roseman, the Eagle’s executive vice president of football operations, told crowds at the starting line.

“They said it was too cold! They said it was too rainy!” said Eagles center Jason Kelce, mimicking his iconic parade sermon on the Parkway. “Now, let’s go out there and have some fun.”

All cycling routes launched in the Linc’s parking lot throughout the morning, as each ride wound along different courses around city and eventually finished back at the field on the 50-yard line.

The 50-mile ride reached as far northeast as Blue Bell, while the family friendly 5K circled Citizens Bank Park along Darien, Packer Broad and Pattison.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and center Jason Kelce take in the Eagles Autism Challenge at the Linc this weekend. (Grace Maiorano)

From parents of children on the spectrum to special education teachers, attendees say they traveled from across the country to support an under-researched and underfunded cause.

“I’m seeing every day these kids and how much this could benefit them,” said participant Kelsey Turp, an autism support teacher. “Just a little bit of money would be something, but the amount that we raised — more than $2 million — it could be such a benefit.”

The developmental disorder is being diagnosed at a rate of one in 59 children, according to the Eagles Autism Challenge report. It seems to be more prevalent among males, as one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls are identified.

Attendees found the Eagles’ fundraiser to be particularly valuable, because the challenge not only aims to draw awareness toward a relatively uncertain condition but strives to improve its scientific studies.

“We wanted to support this, because the money’s going to help out early detection and help out where it’s needed — instead of just awareness, like most things,” said participant Joel Lipenta.

Participants also say it was especially thrilling to watch their favorite team in the NFL shed light to a commonly misunderstood disorder that falls near and dear in their lives.

“We’re die-heart Eagles fans, so to have our team support a cause that’s so personal to us, it’s amazing,” said attendee Natalie Beckwith.

“We’re here to support the Eagles and to raise money and awareness for autism, which is a cause we all deeply care about,” added attendee Kennedy Edmonds. “I think it’s so great to be a part of something that’s bigger than us. It makes you feel like you can do something small but a make a big difference. And if everyone felt that way, imagine what we could all do and how we could change the world.”

During closing remarks on the field, Eagles Insider reporter Dave Spadaro recognized the challenge’s major research partners, including Madeline Bell, the CEO of CHOP, John Anderson Fry, the president of Drexel University, Robert T. Schultz, director of the Center for Autism Research at CHOP, Craig Newschaffer director of The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, and Roseann C. Schaaf, a professor at Thomas Jefferson University.

“Your passion and resilience today epitomize everything that made us Super Bowl champions this year,” Jeffrey Lurie, chairman and CEO of the Eagles, told the crowd at the finish line. “This has truly been an incredible year. Today has exceeded my wildest expectations, and this is just year one of the Eagles Autism Challenge.“

The Philadelphia Eagles and Lincoln Financial Group plan to conduct this fundraiser and event on an annual basis.

The funding will specifically go toward research related to autism causes, including environmental and genetic evidence, as well as assistance toward individuals affected by the disorder and future generations who fall on the spectrum.

This year’s top team funders included Team Eagles — Catch 22, which raised more than $550,000; Eagles Football Operation, which raised more than $69,000; and Team KTMC, which raised close to $68,000.

“This is a fantastic start, but today is just the beginning, Philadelphia,” Lurie said. “You never let us down. I know we will look back on 2018 as not just the year we won the Super Bowl but as the year we began to change the world for those living with autism.”