What began as eight friends, a football and a card table at an average tailgate quickly transformed into a full-fledged charity as a group of friends in Section 16H of the Meadowlands parking lot in 2003 decided they could turn their pre-game into working for a cause. Thus, the Section 16H Group was founded.

While the venue may have changed now that the N.Y. Giants play at MetLife Stadium, the tailgate continues, and each year, the party grows and a new charity to donate to is chosen. This year, the event, which took place Sept. 30 at 1 p.m., benefited Custodes Libertatis Memorial Foundation.

The group itself is described as friends from industry, college and life-long friends that rallied behind causes. With its founders coming from all different industries, the men were able to build a network that grew their party from eight to 800-900 attendees. While their own tailgate has been going since 2003, it was in 2005 that they decided they could do more. It was in that year that member Dr. Brian Wraith’s uncle passed from brain cancer. The members raised a small amount of money and gave the donations to Wraith’s uncle’s widow.

From there, they decided they wanted to make more of a difference. Wraith and the other founders were able to get a non-for-profit status after creating their company, and then filed to be a public status. Section 16H Group is now a 501(c)(3) charity that helps to support different charities each year. The key to it all, agreed members Wraith, Dr. Mark Goldstein and celebrity chef Josh Capon, is their bond to each other.

“I really think the friendships we have can’t be minimized when we talk about the charities because the friendships drove the charity and now the charity drives our friendship in that it’s very easy to stay close to someone you have respect for when you work shoulder-to-shoulder with them in charitable endeavors. The other things is, I get choked up even thinking about it, but I never thought – I always daydreamed about it – that a bunch a guys from humble beginnings could actually run a charity and impact people’s lives,” Wraith said. “I don’t want to have a ton of us patting ourselves on the back, but it happens to a degree, and it’s an amazing, amazing experience as a human being to help other people.”

Past tailgates have helped charities such as The Riley Sandler Foundation, the Sarcoma Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, as well as organizations like the American Cancer Society. Charities are chosen by the group, with each member getting a vote and input. Their only hope is the cause they decide on is one close to their hearts.

“We want to be connected to these people in some fashion, either a neighbor or someone that has impacted our life, or a coworker, or someone along those lines,” Wraith said. “We want it to be connected to us, and we’re all very connected to each other. Every one of us has had some modicum of success, so we’re not looking to be compensated. It’s just our way of giving back, and we get to throw a kick-ass party that’s a lot of fun.”

The party itself is, as Capon said, “It’s not just one of the greatest parties of all time, it’s the greatest tailgate of all time for a great cause.” Stocked with five fully stocked bars with top-shelf liquor, food that includes Kobe beef, lamb chops, sushi and products from Bowery Meat Co., as well as a DJ to help kick off the tailgate and a gaming center for kids to be able to play video games, there is something for everyone.

In part, it’s able to come together with the help of the members’ skillsets as well as their own individual backgrounds and networks.

“This started as a bunch of guys that were just there to have a good football toss and poker game; that was the genesis of this whole thing, and we all realized we have networks,” Goldstein said. “Two of the founding fathers are partners in the Tao Group in New York City, and they had their tentacles in everything. Dr. Wraith owns physical medical centers and gyms in the area, as do I, and Josh is a celebrity chef. With all our contacts, it became a kind of movement, and now it’s this amazing party that everyone who goes is there to party. Everyone is dressed down, and it’s an eclectic mix of people with no judgement and a lot of money raised and an amazing party with the most insane food ever. Chef Capon and the Tao Group is there. No one has ever left saying this isn’t the most insane tailgate I’ve ever been to.”

The event has now been a staple in the men’s lives, and, while they barely make it to the game with all the work that goes into the event, the group is very grateful for the cooperation provided by MetLife Stadium and the N.Y. Giants.

“I think the whole day is special,” Capon said. “It’s one of our favorite days of the year, but there is a moment where we do present to someone in the organization. It’s a big check, and it’s not about the money, it’s about the connections we made. I have an email on my wall from Riley Sander’s dad, and it’s a memento. I’ll never forget that moment where we were chanting her name in the parking lot, there wasn’t a dry eye in the parking lot, and her symbol was a pair of bunny ears. It almost felt like everyone at the game was wearing bunny ears. I have to say it was probably 1/1000 but it felt like everywhere you looked, there wear bunny ears. No one makes a dollar or takes a dime, it’s just charity work. In life, you are going to figure out how to give back. The world is getting to be a really nasty place, and you have to figure how to give back, and it keeps us together too. It’s a ton of work for all of us. It’s great.”

Moving forward, Section 16H Group wants to make an even bigger difference. Not one of the members are compensated for their efforts, and while they originally never imagined it would grow to this level, they now have trouble seeing it as anything smaller. Their goals now include making their own programs and seeing how far they can take their charity.

“I guess when we were throwing the football around, we had no idea we would have 800-900 people and we would have board meetings about how we would divvy up the money,” Wraith said. “Now, we’re happy with the success we’ve had, but we want to do more. The next step for us would be to initiate our own program so we can help the community and not be the conduit for another charity, but actually set up our own programs that directly impact the public.”

Their goal for the charity and the tailgate, mainly, is to make a difference while making sure everyone is having the best time possible. They are not looking for a somber event, but one that celebrates the people and makes an impact.

“We have a certain skill set, a certain work ethic, and we’ve had help and we’ve gotten lucky,” Wraith said. “It’s a combination of anything that’s good, all those ingredients are there. There’s some skill, there’s some hard work and there’s some luck, and I think one important thing to remember is we’re a humble group of people and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re a humble group of guys working together. Mark, Josh and I are your neighbors. We’re the guys picking up the free newspaper from their driveways, asking about the kids. We want to help people and we are helping people. In some regards, we’re ordinary guys who want to help people and we’re pulling it off.”

Goldstein concurred and is proud of the work they have been able to achieve.

“We’re playing to our strengths; we have access to things that not everyone has,” Goldstein said. “It’s a lightning-in-a-bottle combination; we all add to it to some capacity. We’re a charitable team. This is not rocket science; this is life is good and not everyone has it as good, so let’s level the playing field a little and do what we can. Life is good, so enough with the frowns and let’s have some fun.”

By Tara DeLorenzo

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