It's been less than 48 hours since their visit to the NovaCare Complex and 12-year-old Nathan and 9-year-old Bennett Falcone are still riding high.
Sitting on the two cozy couches in the living room of their family's two-story home in Erdenheim, Pennsylvania, the two brothers — Nathan in a Carson Wentz jersey, Bennett in a LeSean McCoy — eagerly show off their white leather Eagles footballs, adorned with signatures of about a couple dozen or so of their heroes.
Eventually, one of the footballs will be put in a glass case to live in the boys' shared upstairs bedroom. The other will find a permanent home in their recently finished basement. But for now, the footballs live on the coffee table, reminders of an almost unbelievably perfect day.
Wednesday's trip to visit the Eagles was a distraction for Nathan, Bennett and their family of five. Both brothers have a rare form of the already rare condition progeria. In layman's terms, progeria is a genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly. It causes them to have thin skin, protruding veins, hair loss and joint soreness. The lifespan of children with classic progeria is around 13.
But on Wednesday, Nathan and Bennett were just two excited little kids, getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience behind the scenes with their favorite football team.
Visiting the complex
The trip to the Eagles' facility came together pretty quickly. Erin Smith, the girlfriend of linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, happened to see a video of the Falcone brothers on YouTube. In the video, Nathan wore an Eagles shirt and the two talked about the Birds. About two days after Grugier-Hill saw the video, he had the entire family at the facility for a tour.
"Our expectations for Wednesday, we weren't sure," the boys' mother Phyllis Falcone said. "We figured we'd meet Kamu and Erin. We were pleasantly surprised to meet so many people and for them to be so nice."
Nathan, Bennett, mom Phyllis, dad Mark and 14-year-old sister Libby got to the NovaCare Complex around 2 p.m. and stayed for about an hour. Grugier-Hill stayed with them the whole time during the tour.
"So we saw, like, the fields that were outside," Nathan started.
"And the gym!" Bennett excitedly interjected.
The family got to explore the weight room, the digital studio, they got to stand at the lectern in the team's auditorium and sit in the giant comfy seats made for 300-pound linemen. The chair folded up on little Bennett. One of the highlights was their private trip into the Eagles' locker room, along with meeting about 20 players and seeing Merrill Reese.
"They were just in awe," Grugier-Hill said. "I went up to them at first and they were all excited. Then they saw Nick Foles and Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson. They got to meet Zach (Ertz). Meeting all those guys they really look up to, they were stoked. And then we brought them into the locker room, it was really fun to see them have that kind of joy."
Everyone seemed to agree the highlight of the whole trip was when they got to meet Foles.
"They didn't talk much because they were in shock, but when they saw him, they started bouncing and you saw their faces light up," Grugier-Hill said. "It was so cool to see."
In fact, Bennett got a chance to show Foles one of his recent homework assignments. In third grade, his class is learning about contractions and he needed to use five of them in five different sentences. Of course, all of Bennett's sentences were Eagles related and one of them was, "There's going to be a parade down Broad Street."
Foles thought the sentence was pretty good. He thought the boys were great.
"It really just puts things in perspective," Foles said. "To see what those kids have to go through and to be able to put a smile on their faces and to be able to see their smiles as they tour the building is special. People don't realize this part, they probably don't realize how much it means for us to meet them. It's special to the players too."
In addition to getting their footballs signed by tons of Eagles — sister Libby left with one too — the boys and the entire family got in a handful of photos with different Eagles around the complex, starting with Alshon Jeffery, whom they saw on the walk up to the building.
In one of the photos, the boys posed with Nate Sudfeld, Mychal Kendricks, Marcus Johnson and Grugier-Hill in the locker room. Grugier-Hill put on a rubber dog mask that has become a symbol for these underdog Eagles. It's pretty fitting; Nathan and Bennett are also kind of underdogs.
Living with progeria
There are fewer than 1,000 kids worldwide suffering from progeria. Nathan and Bennett have a form called Mandibuloacral Dysplasia (MAD), which is extremely rare. They are two of just six known cases on Earth.
Basically, the difference between classic progeria and MAD is a mutation of a different gene. The good news is, their symptoms are less pronounced than kids with the classic form of the condition. The bad news is, with just six cases in the world, there aren't any specific studies.
They've been involved in clinical trials for about 8½ years, starting after they were diagnosed, but there's not much with which to compare the results.
"It's all so hard to tell because we don't know what to expect," Mark said. "The boys are definitely more limber. They definitely have tightness and soreness in some of their joints and stuff like that. Hair is a little thicker. Other kids have special needs, it's not like they're sick or have any day-to-day issues. It's the physical limitations, that's the big thing. And the unknown."
Not knowing what the future holds is the toughest part. Last year, when he was still in second grade, Bennett came home with a paper that listed the life expectancies of different animals. When he got to humans and the listed age, he paused before saying, "Except for us," and then got quiet. Of the two, Bennett holds his feelings in more.
While the life expectancy of kids with classic progeria is 13, the Falcones have no idea about their own kids because their form of the condition is so rare. The less-pronounced symptoms seem to be a good sign, but they just don't know.
"But we like them," Phyllis said, beaming at her boys. "They're the cutest kids."
The family desperately wants to find a cure, but fundraising is tricky. Sometimes, Phyllis admits, they almost try to live in denial or at least live their lives as normally as possible. Fundraising — like their event at MaGerk's Pub & Grill in Fort Washington on Feb. 3 — is a constant reminder of their dire situation.
The boys agree it helps that they both have progeria; they're at least able to commiserate. While having two children with the same genetic disorder is a challenge, Mark said the advantage is they can go through it together.
Most of the kids at school don't give them any problems. They've been classmates with the brothers for a long time so they're used to them. The bigger problem at school is teachers who sometimes want to make exceptions for them because of their special needs; mom doesn't like that.
If the boys do meet a new kid with questions, they're used to it. They handle it as simply as possible.
"I just tell them the truth," Nathan said. "That I have special needs."
Then, of course, there are the stares from intrigued strangers in public. They're unavoidable.
"You get used to it," protective older sister Libby said. "I just stare back."
Their own people
While Nathan and his little brother Bennett are best friends and spend a ton of time together, they're very, very different people with their own distinct personalities.
Nathan is the math whiz, who likes reading and loves coding for computer and video games. He used to play the trumpet, but now he plays the violin. He wants to learn how to play the Eagles' fight song.
When asked what he's reading these days, Nathan jumps off the couch and hurries across the room to show off his latest book in the Percy Jackson series. He also enjoys the Warrior series; a new book came out in November, but they don't have it in the school library just yet. While Nathan sometimes likes to play football, he's just as likely to bring a book outside with him.
Bennett, on the other hand, he's the football kid, the sports fanatic. Bennett will throw the football around by himself in the front yard for hours at a time. He just turned 9 in December, but Bennett plays soccer and baseball with kids who are slightly younger than him. There are physical limitations because of the progeria.
"That's something that he definitely struggles with," Phyllis said. "He's a rough kid, he's a sports kid and he can't, like at recess he told me that he can't play with the rougher kids if they're playing sports. I think he definitely struggles with the physical limitations more than Nathan."
This past summer, the family put up a badminton net in their yard, which offered the perfect game. It allowed the boys to release their competitive sides in a way that wasn't too dangerous.
The biggest thing the two brothers have in common is their affinity for YouTube, a trend in the house Libby proclaims she started. Nathan and Bennett — like many kids their age — enjoy watching YouTube videos of other people playing video games. It's a trend that's likely very confusing for anyone over the age of 20 but has become huge. They even have their own YouTube channel with videos of them playing games.
"We have almost 1,000 subscribers," Nathan proudly boasts.
"No, we already have 1,000," Bennett fires back.
"No. We don't," big brother says, ending the short argument.
For the sake of exactitude, Nathan and Bennett's YouTube channel "Nate & Ben bros" had 1,008 subscribers as of Sunday evening and it's likely to keep growing.
Nathan and Bennett are huge Philadelphia sports fans. Dad jokes they didn't have a choice in the matter.
The Falcones are like any typical football fan family. For a while, Libby was banished to the basement to watch games because it was good luck. During the NFC Championship Game, she watched it in the family room while straightening her hair, so if she's at the house for the Super Bowl, you know where she'll be sitting.
There's no question what the best part of this season has been. "That they're going to the Super Bowl," Bennett said.
But for a while, there was a little bit of doubt in their house — and many houses in the Delaware Valley. When Carson Wentz got injured on Dec. 10 and Foles took over, the Falcones were a little worried about the rest of the 2017 season.
"I thought it was over," Libby admitted.
"I don't know," said Nathan, the optimist. "Like kind of, but kind of not."
"Foles stepped up his game," Bennett added.
During Eagles games, although he's generally more outgoing, Bennett is sometimes quieter. On the other hand, Nathan's temper shows itself; dad jokes he doesn't know where that comes from.
One thing the whole family agrees on is the eventual outcome of Super Bowl LII. They're all convinced the Eagles are going to take down the mighty Patriots in Minnesota on Feb. 4.
It would be extra sweet because the boys will be back in Boston, in the middle of Patriots country, in August for another round of their clinical trial.
Nathan and Bennett would love nothing more than to strut into Boston Children's Hospital this summer, wearing their Eagles jerseys and boasting just a few months after a big Super Bowl victory.
Then they can tell everyone about the time they met and inspired the world champions.