The Game of Life: Organ Donation in the NFL

Football is all the buzz this week as the nation prepares for the biggest game of the year.  With the upcoming Superbowl XLVIII battle between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos there is a lot of focus on team statistics, looming weather forecasts and the game’s history, but we thought we’d bring the topic closer to our hearts with a look at the historical overlap between organ donation and the National Football League (NFL).

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Walter Payton, Chicago Bears,

When you hear Payton and think football, surely a certain Superbowl bound Peyton probably comes to mind.  However, one of the earliest links between the gift of life and the NFL goes back to Walter Payton, running back for the Chicago Bears.  Payton helped the Bears defeat the New England Patriots at Superbowl XX in 1986. At the time he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with over 14,000 yards, and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.  In February 1999, Payton announced that he had a rare autoimmune liver disease, and although his condition was too advanced for transplantation to be a viable option he spent his final months advocating for organ donation by appearing in television commercials and advertisements encouraging people to become registered donors.  Payton’s legacy lives on through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which continues to work to bring national attention to the need for organ donors.

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Charles Tillman and heart recipient daughter Tiana.

In 1998 Charles Tillman, another Chicago Bears player, was called out of practice with the news that his daughter had been rushed to the hospital.  He arrived to find doctors huddled around his three-month-old daughter Tiana, and was told she may not make it through the night.  Though she survived the evening she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and was in dire need of a heart transplant.  After spending three months on a heart and lung machine little Tiana received her life-saving gift.   In 2011 he and his wife Jackie met Magali, the mother who made the selfless decision to donate her son’s heart which gave young Tiana a second chance at life during an appearance on Oprah.

Wide-receiver Chris Henry was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2005 draft, and made his NFL debut on September 18 2005 against the Minnesota Vikings.  Henry spend his entire professional career in Cincinnati bringing in 21 touch downs and 119 pass receptions. In December 2009 Henry died from injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident.  Carolyn Henry Glaspy made the decision to leave behind more than just her son’s football legacy, and saved the lives of four individuals by saying yes to donation.  Eleven months after Henry’s death Carolyn had the opportunity to see that legacy first hand by meeting Henry’s four organ recipients on a Sports special pre-game show that aired on Thanksgiving day.  Not only did she find closure that day, she found her cause.  Now Glaspy works closely with LifeShare of the Carolinas and LifeCenter Organ Donor Network in Cincinnati to speak at regional and national engagements about how organ donation has helped her heal.

Two years ago, as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was preparing for his fifth Superbowl appearance there was something besides running plays and scoring touchdowns was stealing his focus. About a month prior, in the midst of his regular season play,  Brady learned that his childhood mentor, Tom Martinez, was struggling with four-times-per-week dialysis sessions and in need of a life-saving kidney transplant.  Brady sprung into action using his popularity to encourage people to go to MatchingDonor.com, a non-profit organization that helps connect living donors to those waiting, in an attempt to find a kidney match for his old coach.  Brady raised awareness through an online banner circulated on his personal social media accounts and through MatchingDonor.  Though Martinez ultimately lost his fight while waiting on the transplant list, Brady’s message brought hundreds of new registrants the living donor match site and resulted in the successful transplant of two other patients.

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Kenny Easley, Seattle Seahawks 1981-1987, Kidney Recipient

Is it a coincidence that the Donate Life colors coincide with the team colors of the Seattle Seahawks?  Well, yes, but organ donation has touched the lives of a few of our hometown heroes as well.  Kenny Easley is considered one of the greatest Seahawks players of all-time and one of the greatest safeties in NFL history.  A first-round pick in the 1981 NFL Draft Easley played for the Hawks from 1981-1987 and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984.  He was also a four-time All-Pro selection and elected to the Pro Bowl five times in his career.  In 1987 Easley was diagnosed with severe kidney disease which ended his football career.  Though his football career ended prematurely, his life was extended when he received a kidney transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center in June 1990.

As we head into Superbowl XLVIII this weekend, all eyes are on the young Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.  Over the past two years Wilson has shown that he has drive, focus, and determination to lead the Seahawks to the top, but he has also made it known that he has a soft spot.  Every Tuesday, Wilson and his wife Ashton make a trip to visit patients and their families at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH).  It is a weekly ritual that gives the gift of hope and happiness to many of the sick kids at SCH, but one particular patient had the opportunity to give Wilson a gift of his own.  Allison Christensen was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and at 11-years-old had just been placed at the top of the waiting list for a heart transplant.  Less than a week later, on a Tuesday afternoon in September, Christensen saw a familiar face at her door; it was Wilson, stopping in to say hello.  After a chat about the season, an autograph exchange and photo opportunity Christensen mentioned that she had a present for Wilson and gave him the, now famous, personalized, Seahawks, duct tape wallet.  Wilson gladly accepted.  Just hours after Wilson left that day doctors delivered the news that a heart had been found, and they would need to begin preparations for surgery.  As Christensen was preparing for her life-saving transplant, Wilson took to the internet to brag about his personalized gift, and two days later used a press conference as an opportunity to show it off to the world.  Today as Christensen enjoys her childhood with a healthy new heart and Wilson is prepares to lead the Seahawks into the big game, each considers the other their good luck charm.

 

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Allison Christensen, and family, with Russell and Ashton Wilson at Seattle Children’s Hospital

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Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, shows off his gift from heart recipient Allison Christensen