Rob Dunphy, along with the Philly Phanatic tattoo adorning his navel, is quickly becoming a local celebrity.
And while he’s not shy in front of the cameras, he’s using his time in the spotlight to shed light on Storm the Heavens, a nonprofit committed to funding research on Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG.
The 26-year-old Bridesburg resident’s claim to fame came in Week 4 of the NFL season at the Eagles-Packers game in Green Bay when a cameraman spotted the shirtless, die-hard fan.
Dunphy and his chest and stomach clad in Philly-centric tattoos quickly became viral, getting picked up by several news outlets.
“Everyone just coming up to me between fans and media, they wanted a picture. At halftime, there was a line to get a picture with me,” he said. “I had to put my shirt on just to get out of the stadium.”
Port Richmond resident Mina Carroll was one of the viewers who saw the shirtless phenom on TV.
“I remember the first time I saw him on the news, I laughed and thought it was funny. And, then I kept seeing him on every channel and like I do often, I started thinking what do I have to do for our suffering children to get that kind of attention?,” she said. “My daughter died of the same disease Karen Armstrong died of 1962. And my daughter and every child that is diagnosed today receives the same exact treatment from almost 68 years ago. And, that’s not on one second of the news or one television show.”
Carroll’s question was soon answered.
A mutual friend reached out on behalf of Dunphy because he wanted to raise money for Storm the Heavens.
Carroll and her husband, Mark Stendardo, created Storm the Heavens Fund, a nonprofit committed to raising funds and awareness for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, DIPG, in August 2017 in honor of their daughter, Philomena “Bean” Stendardo, 8, who passed away from the disease in July 2017 — 10 months after being diagnosed.
Storm the Heavens has raised more than $500,000, with funds going to specific DIPG projects including a $322,000, two-year research project out of the Children’s Cancer Therapy Development Institute.
The project, which is nicknamed “the cancer cell hotel,” focuses on “tracking and baiting the cancer cells,” according to Carroll.
“It’s in the brain stem, which makes it even worse because the brain stem is prime real estate. It controls your breathing, your movement, your heart rate, your balance,” she said. “Cancer will attract to certain things. So the idea is to attract the cells out of the brain stem without them multiplying and then the biomedical material can be removed.”
Most recently, the nonprofit has committed to a three-year, $300,000 clinical trial at several different locations.
“The reason we chose it is one of the leaders of it is Dr. Sabine Mueller,” Carroll said. “My daughter, Philomena, was part of a clinical trial that she was part of. Of all the doctors and researchers I’ve ever met, she’s been the most amazing and most humble. It’s obvious she’s in it for all the right reasons.”
And, on Feb. 28, the organization will host the third annual Bean’s Ball, its signature black-tie gala fundraiser.
Aside from his tattoos popping up all over news broadcasts, he’s gained about 3,000 followers on Instagram.
“I get about 2,000 more likes per picture now. It’s kinda crazy,” Dunphy said, laughing.
After the initial media frenzy and returning home, Dunphy and a friend jokingly created an online fundraiser to get his tattoos finished. Within a day, $175 had been donated. Dunphy’s tattoo artist, Mike Nemo, reached out stating he would finish the tattoos for free if the fundraising goal of $10,000 was reached and Dunphy donated all the money to a charity.
It was a done-deal for Dunphy.
“I said, ‘Dude, I can definitely make that happen,’ so the first thing I thought of was brain cancer because my brother-in-law passed away from it about two months ago,” he said. “And my fiance thought let’s go with Storm the Heavens, so I get ahold of them and went to their house and gave them ideas of what I wanted to do.”
After learning about Philomena, the story hit all too close to home.
I have two kids of my own and God forbid something happened to them. And, I had this little platform and if I didn’t try as hard as I could to make a difference, I’d feel I failed as a parent.”
Since his initial meeting with Mina and Mark, the fundraiser has received nearly $20,000 in donations. And, Dunphy has upped the ante to $100,000 by Christmas.
And, he got T-shirts made at Kulb Designs in Bridesburg so everyone can wear the same tattoos on their chest. A portion of sales will also go to Storm the Heavens.
“I’m really trying to get businesses involved now,” he said. “I’m hoping to get the word out there and each business will match each other even if it’s only a couple hundred dollars because every dollar adds up.”
A couple of businesses have jumped onboard. Northeast Jig Co. and Garrison Roofing are donating 10 percent of all online sales from the month of October to the fundraiser and other local businesses have donated checks.
But before the thousands of dollars in donations, Dunphy was a blank slate.
He got his first tattoo, a Celtic cross in honor of his grandmother, when he was 18.
From there, the body art was endless.
“I have no clue, a lot,” he said laughing about how many tattoos he has. “I literally have no idea. I’ve never counted. Maybe 30- 40-plus. I don’t know.”
Dunphy always wanted a piece that was Philly-based and, after giving it to his tattoo artist his ideas, they got to work.
“The whole outline itself took six and a half hours and that’s without the color and shading. And I got a lot more to go,” he said. “I love Philadelphia. I love all Philly sports.”
The latest tattoo to join his line up is Philly’s newest mascot, Gritty. The ink’s pretty fresh, as fresh as this past Friday actually.
And, while Dunphy’s Philly collage of permanent ink is still not complete, neither is his work to raise awareness and funds for DIPG.
“I truly don’t care about me blowing up. Mina really opened my heart to this whole situation,” he said. “I really want to help the kids and hope to help find a cure eventually. There’s a zero percent survival rate. That’s sad. People need to hear about it. People need to take it more seriously.”
For Carroll, Dunphy has been a blessing in a 215 disguise.
“I just think he’s extraordinary because most average people would likely not be thinking of anyone but themselves during their 15 minutes of fame,” she said. “Rob just likes to have fun, but for him to be serious for a cause that is so great, is amazing. We’re so grateful for his willingness to shed light on something that has been kept in the dark for so long.” ••