When Seahawks general manager John Schneider and his wife Traci first envisioned a fundraising event to support families with autistic children, they never could have imagined this.
The Schneiders' Prime Time celebrity waiter event, which raises money for Ben's Fund, is now in its fifth year, and what took place at El Gaucho in Bellevue Thursday night "totally exceeds all of our expectations," Traci Schneider told the crowd before an auction and dinner got underway.
The packed house included 28 Seahawks players, including Pro Bowlers like Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Tyler Lockett and Jimmy Graham, head coach Pete Carroll, assistant coaches and former Seahawks quarterback Sam Adkins. Through tickets sold to the event, online, silent and live auctions, and the sales of "Ben Bucks" guests could use to pay players for autographs and pictures, this year's "Prime Time" raised $675,000, bringing the total raised by Ben's Fund to more than $2 million since the Schneider's launched the foundation they named after their son, Ben, who was diagnosed with autism when he was three. People still looking to support the cause can donate or bid on auction items here.
"It's amazing how this has grown and morphed into something Traci and I could have never expected," John Schneider said. "Just the support from the whole building to the players coming out and competing for these Ben Bucks, and knowing we're able to do some great things for families that can't afford treatment for autism, words can't explain how special it is, really."
Fans in attendance got a unique chance to rub elbows with their favorite players, who were competing to earn the most "Ben Bucks" by signing autographs, posing for pictures, filming videos, or even calling friends or family members of guests in attendance. Wilson even had some of his teammates roaming the crowd looking for fans willing to pony up 25 or more "Ben Bucks," which cost $12 each, to cut his autograph line.
"Autism is obviously a big issue around the country, and if we have an opportunity to raise money for something like that, it's huge," said tackle Garry Gilliam. "My brother has cerebral palsy, so I know what it's like to have someone in the family with a special-needs issue. So anything I can do to give back in those situations, I'll do my best."
Among those in attendance were Jamie Criss and her father Allan. Jamie, 25, has autism, but despite not being able to speak as a young child, she now sounds like any other young Seahawks fan talking about Wilson, who is her favorite Seahawk, "because he's cute. And also for all the stuff he does in the community, like going to Seattle Children's Hospital."
While the Schneiders had the financial means to pay for treatment for Ben at a young age, a lot of families don't, which was the genesis behind Ben's Fund. So far Ben's Fund has given out more than 825 grants to Washington state families, and will be able to do a lot more after Thursday night's event.
"Everybody that attends this event, we're pretty lucky that we can do the things that we need to do to support our kids, but not everybody's that lucky," Allan Criss said. "You want three things for your kids—you want them to be happy, you want them to be accepted for who they are, and you want them to reach their full potential, and this event helps parents make sure their kids get those three things. It's awesome."
What also makes "Prime Time" so special other than the money it raises is how involved players are. It would be easy this time of year for players to want to enjoy what little time they have left in their offseason, or to maybe just cut a check to show their support for Schneider, but instead dozens of Seahawks, including some of the best known players on the roster, give their time to serve as celebrity waiters—or in the case of Lockett, as a waiter/substitute piano player.
"It's for a great cause, but also, John and Traci have made themselves available to us as players, they're very personable, very approachable people, so us as players want to give back to them and say thank you for the way they carry themselves and handle themselves as our bosses," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "That on top of being a great way to assist families who are dealing with autistic children, it's a great benefit.
"This definitely exemplifies what we are as a team, on and off the field—we're a family, and we support each other that way."
Added Wagner: "It's a big deal because we really feel like we're a family. Whether it's the players, the coaching staff, the front office, whenever there's an event to support a good cause, we want to give our time. We appreciate John Schneider so much and want to show our support."
Prime Time celebrity waiter event raises money for Ben's Fund, is now in its fifth year.