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Carolina Panthers tight end duo raising funds, awareness for autism on and off the field

When Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble step onto the field Sunday at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, it’ll be hard to ignore their bright orange footwear.

The Carolina Panthers tight ends are teammates in football, but they’re also partners in bringing awareness to a local non-profit organization that is very important to them and many families in the Charlotte area. Thomas and Tremble have chosen to represent Autism Charlotte as part of the NFL’s annual “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative, which allows players to promote organizations, charities and causes that are significant to them.

Against the Saints, Thomas will wear orange cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo plastered on them. The back of the cleats state, “Over 7,000 kids in Charlotte are in the Autism spectrum.” Tremble will sport similar cleats, but his will feature puzzle pieces, a symbol commonly associated with autism.

“The way I describe the puzzle pieces is every single person is a different puzzle piece,” Tremble told The Observer. “Sometimes they may not fit in the regular puzzle, but they fit somewhere. And seeing that on top of the cleats and really showing that even though it’s a bunch of pieces, everyone has a place to fit, I think it’s an awesome analogy for it.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

Autism Charlotte was founded in 2006. The organization works with students ages 3 to 23 with a core focus on academic, social and personal skill development.

Thomas got involved with Autism Charlotte as a rookie in 2018. He grew up with a first cousin, Jahsai, on the spectrum and understands the difficulties that families face with children who are autistic. Thomas, 27, appreciates the organization’s mission, and he has been a hands-on advocate ever since.

“Back then, there wasn’t really an office for Autism Charlotte — it was kind of just helping kids there, there was an afterschool program inside those schools,” Thomas said. “And fast forward to now, it kind of grew to them opening up their own facility and having a bunch of teachers there, and then afterschool programs, day care, a bunch of stuff — because a bunch of feedback we get is, ‘It helps a lot because I can go to work and I don’t have to rush home to pick my kid up from school.’ Some of these schools don’t have the proper, I guess, teaching or proper facilities to help the kids that are on the spectrum.”

Dr. Valerie Morgan Iseah, the organization’s CEO, has overseen Autism Charlotte’s growth from an afterschool program in a few Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and YMCAs to creating the first and only academy for autistic children in the area, A Place to Call Home, in 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the organization’s mission tough to accomplish with multiple remote settings, so Charlotte Autism consolidated its program at a temporary location to improve the program’s continuity. After seeing the results of the consolidated program at a satellite location during the pandemic, the organization found a permanent home, where Thomas, in particular, has become a regular visitor.

“Being in those environments, we could not control the environment,” Iseah said. “We could not maintain the continuity that we wanted to. So, something as simple as ‘Valerie, we’re going to move you from one classroom to the next,’ and for my kids, who need a lot of continuity and struggle tremendously with transitions, some of them that would set them back six months. Just a move from one room to the other. And so we decided that we needed to find a place where these kids could call home. A place where they knew exactly what to expect when they got there every day, because that’s important to their development.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

Thomas introduced Tremble to Autism Charlotte last year. Tremble, 23, had previously worked with “Best Buddies” on a national level. Tremble said he grew up with a family friend, Eric Habelow, who had a severe case of Down syndrome.

Tremble has known Habelow since the tight end was a toddler, and their friendship has endured ever since. Habelow has been an avid supporter of Tremble and vice versa. Their relationship helped Tremble appreciate Charlotte Autism’s mission to help provide education and support those on the spectrum.

“I kind of already knew the world of everyone kind of treating you differently just because you’re different,” Tremble said. “And I never thought that was the case for really everyone. Every single person is different no matter what’s going on with them. So, just kind of treating him the same way as any other person — and I kind of saw that vision with Autism Charlotte. Sometimes people might need an extra leg up, an extra bit of help here and there, but at the same time, they treat them like people.”

Thomas has been a fixture of the Autism Charlotte’s most successful events, including a March gala that he co-hosted, which raised over $400,000 for the organization’s programs.

“He personally went out and got auction items, he helped us build the guest list, he went out and got sponsorships — he was absolutely phenomenal,” Iseah said. The gala “in terms of attendance and dollars raised, it was our most successful event ever.”

Tremble also attended the gala and donated cleats as part of the fundraising effort. Both tight ends also took part in a recent Truck or Treat event at the school.

“Seeing all of the families there — saying they drive 45 minutes away to try to come and take their kids to that afterschool program — and see the new building and see all of the classrooms for kids with sensory issues, and being able to see how accommodating it was, and how grateful those families were, it really put it into perspective how big of an impact it is,” Tremble said.

Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas will wear custom-made cleats with the Autism Charlotte logo designed on the footwear in Week 14’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

While the organization has seen significant growth over the past few years, Iseah still says there are still thousands of students and families who are in need of Autism Charlotte’s services.

The organization’s vision is to ultimately open up three more centers so it can serve all four quadrants of the city and make services more accessible to families in other areas of the state. From there, the organization wants to branch out to other areas to teach educators how to service families impacted autism across the country.

Thomas and Tremble spreading awareness for Autism Charlotte’s mission will only help the organization grow and service even more children on the spectrum.

“We are barely scratching the surface,” Iseah said. “When I say there are over 7,000 school-aged children in Charlotte on the spectrum — that’s 8 (years old) and up — we only touched the lives of 260 of those kids last year. So there is still a huge need, a huge gap.

“We’re really, really proud of what we’ve accomplished, but there’s so much more to be done.”