Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The average weight of an adult human's kidney is approximately one-quarter pound. It is roughly four inches long, 2.5 inches wide and shaped like a fist. The kidney is a miraculous organ, performing a number of functions to keep your blood clean and chemically balanced. Most of us have two kidneys. Everson Walls has one. His other kidney sits in the body of Ron Springs, his teammate from a quarter-century ago.
Walls made his sacrifice on Feb.28. In doing so he became the first pro athlete in history to donate an organ to a teammate, and became my Sportsman of the Year. What makes a man want to give a part of himself to another man? Not a piece of his income, mind you, and not his time, but a body part. "What was tough for me to accept was being labeled a hero," says Walls. "I want everyone to know that's not why I did this. What I did for Ron was unconditional. I did it for him and for his family. I did it because I saw how my friend was suffering."
His friend had lost his right foot and two of his left toes during a 15-year battle with Type 2 diabetes. In 2004 Springs was placed on the national transplant waiting list. He needed a kidney but no one in his family was a match.
Walls read up on becoming a donor and offered to be tested. The doctors called it a perfect kidney. "Walls is my greatest friend right now and I have to deal with him for 30 more years," Springs said when the two held a joyous press conference in Dallas two days after the transplant. "I know he's going to hold it over me."
Walls later watched a DVD of the transplant and was transfixed by what he saw. "The doctors sliced me open and then grabbed this fist-sized organ and place it into Ron Springs," says Walls, 47. "It was an amazing thing."
Springs and Walls were teammates for just four seasons (1981-84), but their friendship grew beyond their days at Texas Stadium. They became godfathers of each others' children. Shawn Springs, Ron's oldest son, followed in his godfather's footsteps: He starts at cornerback, for the Redskins. "It takes a special person who can berate you and you still like him for it," Walls says of Ron. "You even have to laugh at yourself for what he says about you. Of course, he has the ability to berate himself too. You can't help but be drawn to the guy."
The story of their friendship went national in USA Today and other outlets. It was covered with great flare locally, including this terrific account by the Dallas Morning News. In September both men stood on the field at Texas Stadium as honorary captains for the Cowboys' season opener against the Giants.
Walls and Springs were supposed to spend their second act together, a couple of football Sunshine Boys traveling the road as advocates for organ transplants. But in October, Springs entered Medical City Dallas Hospital to have a cyst removed from his arm. It was expected to be a minor procedure, but as soon as the anesthesia was administered, Springs stopped breathing. "His heart rate stopped," Walls says. "And he immediately flatlined."
Springs, 51, has not regained consciousness. He has been in a coma since Oct. 12. The doctors say there is little hope for recovery but Walls refuses to lose faith. "The first diagnosis that we got from the neurologist was that he would probably not come out of it," Walls says. "That really hit us hard. I mean, really hit us hard. As we recover from that, we realize Ron is still moving around. I don't care if it's a brain stem doing it, the front of his brain or back of his brain, we still think he is aware of us talking to him and visiting him."
The waiting list for donations of kidney and other vital organs as of this writing is 97,919. Since his transplant Walls has become a spokesman for living organ donations and the Ron Springs & Everson Walls Gift for Life Foundation has raised awareness and funds. Just this week, Walls met Bill Clinton in Dallas and the two talked about joining forces in some form.
Walls says he and his family visit Springs every few days. He'll squeeze Springs' wrist, pull his ears or pop him on the forehead. "Anything to make sure he stays as active as possible," Walls says. " When they tell us he is not giving any reaction, I take offense to that because I get a reaction every time. The neurologists are taught a certain way. Most of them are not taught by faith. They only go by what they learned in medical school. We're not like that. We have faith. We believe he is going to come out of it."
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