By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE
Jason Kelce faced an adoring crowd every bit as tenacious as the defensive linemen the Eagles All-Pro and Pro-Bowl center encounters in the trenches during his NFL games.
Hundreds of admirers swarmed him for autographs, selfies and a few precious words of conversation during his celebrity bartending appearance Wednesday in Sea Isle City to raise money for the Eagles Autism Foundation.
Cheryl Kehner, the wife of Sea Isle Councilman William Kehner, even grabbed ahold of Kelce’s trademark bushy, lumberjack-style beard and gave it an affectionate tug while the two exchanged smiles.
Kelce pulled double duty while mingling with Eagles fans at a family-friendly area set up at the Paddy’s Green outdoor dining area at O’Donnell’s Pour House and then serving drinks at the Sandbar and Grill at the Ocean Drive nightclub.
In a surprise, he brought along his brother Travis Kelce, the Pro-Bowl and All-Pro tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Eagles offensive left tackle Jordan Mailata, who carefully squeezed his massive, 6-foot-8, 345-pound frame into the crowd.
Jason Kelce also appeared last year at the Ocean Drive in a guest bartending role to raise money for his “Team 62,” which is part of the Eagles Autism Challenge, an annual fundraiser for the Eagles Autism Foundation.
“After sitting around and discussing it, it became absolutely clear that the OD wanted to be involved with the fundraiser,” Kelce said in an interview while using the Ocean Drive’s nickname.
Kelce said that one of his inspirations for his Team 62 goes back to 2012’s Polar Bear Plunge weekend celebration in Sea Isle. He noted that Polar Bear Plunge weekend has included a major fundraiser for autism awareness and programs organized each year by Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, the iconic Sea Isle eatery.
Last summer at the Ocean Drive, a total of $100,000 was raised for the Eagles Autism Foundation, including $50,000 from the public and a matching $50,000 donation from Kelce and his wife, Kylie.
Ever since the Eagles Autism Challenge was launched in 2018, the effort has raised more than $16 million for the foundation.
Paying a $10 donation, hundreds of Kelce’s fans added to the foundation’s $16 million during the fundraiser at the OD and its sister property, O’Donnell’s Pour House. Money was also raised for the autism foundation through the sale of Eagles-themed gear, auctions and raffles.
“It’s all about the charity,” said Michael Roberts, who co-owns the OD and O’Donnell’s Pour House with brothers Ralph and Pat Pasceri.
Roberts pointed out that the excitement started Wednesday morning when Jason and Travis Kelce began meeting with their fans.
“He and Travis couldn’t have been more gracious,” Roberts said. “They were signing autographs and taking pictures. It was fantastic.”
During their evening appearance starting at 4 p.m., Jason, Travis and Jordan Mailata were greeted by enthusiastic crowds that let out impromptu chants of “E-A-G-L-E-S … Eagles!”
Jason was introduced as a future Hall of Fame center. Surrounded by fans, his appearance was seemingly more rock star-like than football star.
Connor Capizzi, a senior who plays center for the Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School football team, beamed after Kelce autographed Connor’s No. 62 Kelce jersey and posed for photos with him. Connor, 17, who lives in Conshohocken, Pa., was joined by his father, John Capizzi, and his 19-year-old brother, Brandon.
“He’s an inspiration to me and the way I play,” Connor said of Kelce. “It means so much to me that I got to meet him.”
Brothers Gavin Oliver, 12, and Landon, 10, both Ocean City Intermediate School students who live in Sea Isle, and their friend, Joey Pittaluga, 6, enjoyed their time meeting the Eagles mascot Swoop and waiting for Jason Kelce, Gavin’s favorite player. Gavin had an Eagles hat autographed by Kelce for a surprise gift for his dad. Travis Kelce signed Landon’s Chiefs jersey.
Joey, of Sea Isle, patiently waited for Swoop to turn around after posing for photos with other fans. When the Eagles mascot turned to give Joey and the Oliver brothers a photo op, Joey smiled widely. A while later, both Jason and Travis Kelce signed Joey’s Eagles jersey.
His mother, Kristy Pittaluga, a Sea Isle Board of Education member who is also involved in the Ocean City PTA, said that the event was so important because it was not only exciting to see a star Eagle, but the day was about helping those with autism.
“It’s awesome. It’s always a good day when you are helping raise money for autism,” she noted.
Also joining in the fun were Ocean City residents Keiri Rafferty, her sons Leo, 13, and Ben, 10, and Rafferty’s aunt, Diane Girous, and her 12-year-old twins, Rylie and Nicholas.
“It’s so awesome that they do this for the town,” Keiri Rafferty said of Kelce’s appearance and the autism fundraiser.
Rylie Girous counts herself as one of Kelce’s top fans.
“He’s a very good person, raising money for autism. Plus, he’s an Eagle,” she said.
Among the other fans waiting for Kelce at Paddy’s Green was 17-year-old Dylan Breen and his mother, Rachel Breen. The Breens live in Chester Springs, Pa., and have a summer home in Sea Isle.
Dylan, who was seated in a wheelchair, has osteogenesis imperfecta, an incurable disorder characterized by extremely brittle bones. Kelce left the crowd for a moment to autograph Dylan’s shirt and pose for pictures.
“It was very good,” Dylan said afterward. “It was very, very nice to meet him.”