Like everyone else watching the Eagles-Packers game last Thursday night, Mina Carroll allowed herself a chuckle when she saw Rob Dunphy and his ridiculous tattoos bouncing on her television screen.
The eagle screaming over an I-95 sign. The carton of Arctic Splash. The outdated Philly skyline. And the pièce de résistance — the Phanatic, inked on his belly, his belly button serving as the beast’s gaping maw. What could Carroll, a Port Richmond girl born and bred, do but laugh?
But then she kept seeing it. Dunphy and the expanse of his oh-so-Philly ink went viral. National. And as she often does when something silly captures the nation’s attention, Carroll thought of Philomena. Her daughter, nicknamed Bean, who died at 8 in July 2017 from a fast-spreading cancer of the brain stem with a zero percent survival rate.
Carroll loves sports — and knows that these days, more than ever, everyone needs an outlet. But after losing a child to something so seemingly ignored by the world at large, it’s hard for her not to wish that the plight of kids like Bean could garner the same attention.
“I often feel this way, when something silly goes viral, when seven kids a day are dying from childhood cancer,” she said.
It might sound like a tenuous connection. But for someone steeped in that loss, it’s not. Normally, Carroll puts those feelings aside and gets to work on Storm the Heavens Fund, the foundation she launched with her husband, Mark Stendardo, that funds research on the cancer that killed Bean.
Two days after the game, the phone rang. It was Dunphy, who’d somehow gotten her number. And he had a plan.
Mike Nemo knew that if any of his clients would let him put a Phanatic tattoo around their belly button, it would be Rob Dunphy. Nemo, co-owner of The Inkwell 215, a tattoo shop in Frankford, is always looking for ways to challenge himself. Dunphy’s substantial frame finally afforded him an ample canvas.
“Rob has a belly — I thought, let’s show it off,” he said. “I put [the Phanatic] right at his belly button.”
“Let’s do it,” Dunphy told him. No questions asked.
Dunphy, like Nemo, grew up in Bridesburg. A father of two young kids, he’s a construction worker and roofer, currently unemployed and engaged to be married. His hometown pride is at the level you would expect for someone who’s permanently marked himself with an homage to the country’s most frustrating highway. Each Philadelphia tattoo holds deep resonance for him.
“There’s Rocky — that’s a historical movie. And Arctic Splash, a Philly-based, lemon-flavored iced tea,” he said, with the precision of a pitchman. “And the skyline. It’s always represented Philly. And everywhere I travel in Philly, I go on 95.”
Dunphy was with family in Green Bay for Thursday’s game and, naturally, took his shirt off. And then the cameras found him.
By halftime, he was viral. By the weekend, he was a star on local and national news. FOX29’s Mike Jerrick, for some reason, poured orange juice into his belly button on Good Morning Philadelphia. (“I didn’t get that either,” Dunphy said.)
A friend even jokingly set up a GoFundMe to finish Dunphy’s tattoos. But then Nemo saw that people were actually donating to it. And he offered to finish all the tattoos for free — if Dunphy could use the GoFundMe to raise 10 grand for charity. Local media picked up on the effort.
Dunphy wanted to find a cancer charity to support. He lost a brother-in-law to brain cancer two months ago. And he’d heard of Carroll’s story from around the neighborhood. Their cause, he thought, was the right one.
After his call, Carroll invited Dunphy to her home. They hugged in the kitchen and she told him about Bean. About her spunkiness, about her athleticism, about her laugh. About how when the doctors at CHOP informed Carroll and Stendardo of the diagnosis — diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) — they handed them a box of tissues and said, “We’re sorry.” And how the disease quickly stole Bean’s ability to walk, talk, and then breathe. When the end came, it felt almost like a terrible mercy.
The standard treatment for Bean’s cancer hasn’t changed since 1962. Carroll’s group has raised nearly half a million dollars to fund research, and is working with other groups to push for more federal funding for childhood cancer research — which somehow gets only a pittance of overall federal cancer research funds.
Dunphy’s fund-raiser blew past the $10,000 mark in four days. It’s still going. He’s hoping to try to hit $20,000. Like his tattoos, it’s a matter of civic pride.
“The thing about me is, I never forget where I came from,” he said. “I’m always going to give back to the people who gave to me.”
After Dunphy left her home, Carroll thought of Bean. Her humor. How contagious it was. And the big belly laugh she would have let out at that silly tattoo.