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A Gift for Ron: Teammates Bound By Football and Life

Oct 16, 2009 – 3:14 PM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

Everson WallsUntil about three years ago, Everson Walls (right) was best known for what he took away: passes intended for receivers. Since then, he's become more known for what he's given: a kidney. After years of watching his one-time teammate and longtime friend Ron Springs being whittled away by diabetes, and losing hope in the wait for a life-saving kidney transplant, Walls, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, donated his to Springs early in 2007.

In A Gift for Ron, a memoir scheduled for release Nov. 3 from Lyons Press, Walls described to me in detail the moving story of how he shed selfishness as a star athlete to become a selfless organ donor. In doing so, Walls became the first pro athlete to donate an organ to a teammate. With Springs, he co-founded The Ron Springs and Everson Walls Gift for Life Foundation.

Two years ago this week, Springs, having risen from a wheelchair on the strength of Walls' kidney, walked into a Dallas hospital to have a cyst removed from his arm. He is still there. Upon being anesthetized, Springs lapsed into a coma from which he has yet to awaken.

Springs is awash in constant prayers and visits from his family and friends who underscore even more so now the importance of what Walls did, which was to save a life that is still here.

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Excerpt from "A Gift for Ron", by Everson Walls with Kevin Blackistone

(From Chapter 1 - excerpted with permission from The Lyons Press, copyright 2009)

You wouldn't know how dire Ron's situation was from Ron. He was as selfish about his problem as he was selfless with his concern for others in the same boat.

Ron was a bright spirit in that dialysis center, just like he was when I met him in summer's dog days of my rookie training camp, and just like he was in the locker room after I was fortunate enough to make the Cowboys and become his teammate. He started tossing around jokes as soon as he rolled through the dialysis center's doors, trying to lighten the life-or-death load that weighed on everyone there, patients and caretakers.

"Here comes that crazy Ron Springs," someone would announce when we rolled him in. Everyone in earshot would chuckle if not laugh out loud.

Ron was praying under it all, though. So was I. We all were. We didn't say so to each other. We didn't want to, and we didn't need to. This was one of those times when deciding to pray was as frightening as it was necessary. You wanted to think that you didn't have to ask God to look out for a husband and father of three who sought in life only to make all those he encountered laugh and smile.

A Gift for RonSo Ron stayed Ron as much as he could. It was seldom that he let himself look less than upbeat. For one thing, he saw being on dialysis, which meant he was on the transplant list, as a blessing. He was certain a donation would come his way before his time ran out.

That was something else I learned from Ron: A challenge was no more than an opportunity. Those kids didn't have coats? No problem. We'll use our celebrity status to get them properly clothed.

So Ron asked me to start taking him to the gym when I went, which was almost every day. He said he wanted to stay in as good a shape as he could so that he'd be ready to take that transplant when it came and pick up his life again where the diabetes left off wrecking it.

"I want this vessel to be ready to receive that new kidney," he said.

I was glad because I felt like I was finally helping Ron feel better in earnest. It was like old times, too. Ron brightened up even more. We'd go to the gym, a new LA Fitness not far from where we lived. I'd do my workout. He did his for as long as he could. When he was ready to go, we left.

It wasn't easy. Sometimes Ron needed me to help him to the men's room. That was the hardest thing, harder than helping Ron stand and walk or pushing him here and there in a wheelchair. Helping another man in the bathroom was about dignity. But I did. It was necessary. And Ron and I moved on.

It didn't dawn on me then, but I was taking my onetime mentor under my wing. I was employing the lessons of teammate and friend that Ron cemented in me.

One day, I thought our dreams had finally come true. Ron didn't make a big announcement. He just mentioned sort of matter-of-factly that his nephew Chris shared his blood type, which made Chris a potential donor, and Chris was willing to take all the medical tests a potential donor had to take to see if he could give Ron a kidney.

I was ecstatic. We all were. Ron's life was about to be saved.

Ron had been down this road before, though. A niece who shared Ron's blood type said she wanted to be his donor and even started the battery of tests to make sure she was healthy enough. It happened at a Springs family reunion. I'll never forget the niece making a dramatic, teary-eyed announcement that she was going to save her uncle's life.

But along the way it was discovered she had become pregnant. Ron's hopes were dashed. He was very upset with his niece for pledging her kidney to save his life but allowing herself to get disqualified by getting pregnant.

So Ron didn't talk more about Chris after first mentioning him. And then, on that one day while we were at the gym, Ron crushed me when he told me Chris was ruled out.

I remember that moment now like it just happened. I could see Shreill's grandmother. I was thinking about her funeral. I could see Adriane's face and the faces of Ron and Adriane's kids. I recalled Ron's niece breaking down in tears at the family picnic. I could see those Fort Worth kids who needed coats and how Ron figured out how to get them. I could see the kids in the bone marrow unit, and I wondered how many of them made it home. And I fought and fought to keep the vision of Ron's funeral from materializing in my mind.

"Damn it, Ron!" I shouted angrily. "What blood type are you?"

"O positive," he said.

To this day I don't know why I'd never asked Ron that question before. Maybe it was because I didn't think he wanted me to because he saw me as someone who could look after his family should he not survive. Or maybe I didn't ask because somewhere deep down inside I thought I might be like most everyone when faced with this challenge, this opportunity, and would look the other way. I don't know why I didn't seek that answer earlier, but now I had, and I realized what it meant.

"Me, too," I responded immediately. "Hell, I'll go by the hospital and see if I'm compatible. You won't ever get a kidney at this rate."

Ron thought I was kidding. He didn't want to think I was serious because he was sick of getting his hopes up only to be disillusioned again in the end. It was an emotional roller coaster he was tired of riding. Adriane, Shreill, and I and all the kids were tired of riding it, too.

So the next week I started the journey to save Ron's life. And along the way I found a new purpose for the rest of mine, or it found me. It's like John Lennon wrote: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Although I didn't know it at the time, it was something my life had been preparing me for all along.
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