| Michigan team members, Maryland
donor families, the host Florida contingent - all began moving
in clumps toward the left or right field fences of the stadium,
where they would soon be introduced to the adoring throng.
One enterprising 11 year-old from Maryland seized this opporunity
to trade some pins, asking all who passed if they might have
one he didn't. This was Jamal Bailey, from D.C., whose mother
donated a kidney to him six years ago, and who two years ago
won a Transplant Games gold medal in the 50 meter dash. He
was born with a disease he couldn't spell - all he knew was
that he had been sick, and that the transplant made him better.
Tonight, he had a firm handshake, a winning smile, and was
ready to go!
As Jamal squirted away with his mother
and brothers, they darted through the mingling and the waving
and the hollering - somehow avoiding the small logjam caused
by Team Wisconsin as they paused to tie an inflatable plastic
cow to a stick they would use to salute the crowd.
Enter the Athletes
By the time the upper deck of the stadium
was filled beyond capacity, the skies were threatening,
but no one noticed. The smooth, sand-colored stadium, with
its grassy banks wrapping around left field, seemed to sway
with the wave, and bend along with those who leaned with
anticipation toward the outfield. "Who will be first?" some
asked. "How will they enter?" Just as the athletes could
be seen gathering by the gate, a flash of lightning and
a rumble of thunder sent all scattering for cover, but the
weather delay did nothing to dampen spirits.
And finally... enter Team Alabama, streaming
in toward the infield. And Arizona, with its seven veterans
of war, and Arkansas, boasting just two members, both heart
transplant recipients. And as the teams filled the lower
bowl, basking in the warm and sometimes raucous reception
of their friends and family members above them, it continued:
the Northern, and then the Southern California participants;
the Connecticut crew, many of them blowing bubbles with
a child's bucket of soap, a wand, and a wave; the Hawaiian
athletes, with colorful button-downs over T-shirts and an
occasional lei; the Oklahoma group, clad in festive headdresses;
and Wisconsin, and their cow, riding high.
"Standing O" for
The crowd loved the athletes, but they saved
their undying gratitude - and their relentless expression
of it - for the donors and their families. As they moved
in a group across the outfield - some towing children by
hand or in their arms, others waving eagerly into the night
air - the stadium rose as one. The applause gathered, and
grew, and continued.
For many minutes. And many tears flowed.
A group of young women wearing matching Nevada
Dance Academy jackets were huddled during this ovation in
the upper bowl when one of them said, "OK, right now. A
group hug." Then they rushed together toward Anne Wyak Norris,
of Reno, Nevada, and gently mobbed her. Anne's daughter,
Kristen, was a teenager who had also been a member of that
dance troupe when she died suddenly in 1996 after going
into shock following a severe allergic reaction.
Anne and her husband, Richard, may also have
been in shock over the loss of their only child, yet they
did not hesitate to donate her organs. Kristen's liver went
to a 58 year old married man; her pancreas and a kidney
is being used by a 31 year old gospel singer; and her other
kidney was donated to an eight year old boy. Hail to the
Kristen was also an actor, a violinist, and
a writer, so her parents created a foundation to support
local projects for children in the arts. The Nevada Dance
Academy of Reno has been invited to perform a scholarship
dance in Kristen's honor at the Donor Recognition Ceremony
at the Orlando Hyatt tomorrow afternoon.
The standing and clapping seemed only to end
when no one seemed able to stand any longer. The National
Anthem was sung - followed by an outburst of fireworks and
the release of many doves.
Sean, the Big O, Carl
... and J.R.
There were many well-known folks in the crowd
- and they all knew how it felt to be a donor or a recipient
or a good and involved friend, and they spoke from the heart.
Sean Elliot, an All-Pro NBA forward who received
a kidney from his brother, Noel, last August and was back
on the court seven months later, said he felt overwhelmed.
And the tears on his cheeks proved it.
"We all have a lot in common," said Sean.
"We all know how hard it is. How challenging it is. For
me, it was the toughest challenge of my life. This is something
you should all be very proud of."
Oscar Robertson, a living NBA legend and Hall
of Famer, donated a kidney to his daughter Tia of Team Ohio.
The Big O sounded a similar theme.
"As a gifted athlete who ascended to
some heights, I'm humbled in your presence. All of you are
my heroes forever."
And Carl Lewis, one of the Olympics Games
greatest performers ever who was present at the first Transplant
Games in 1990, is another tremendous athlete who places
his own accomplishments below the athletic virtues of those
who will compete here over the next few days.
"This is an honor for me," he said. "As athletes
we complain about our bad backs, and you had to go out and
get a transplant. This has been ten years of being introduced
to people who are inspirational. I'm in a stadium tonight
with people who have already won."
Larry Hagman, an accomplished actor well known
as J.R. in the long-running television series Dallas, is
a liver transplant recipient. He also paid tribute to all
who have come before him, and all who will follow.
"I saw athletes today in their T-shirts, and I could
see some of their scars. Some of our scars. Gosh,
we have some beautiful scars. I honor those scars."
Then, with a bit of theatrics that lightened the mood
considerably, he ripped open his shirt and exposed
his own belly-to-chest incision. The huge video screen
behind the podium zoomed in on Mr. Hagman's abdomen,
revealing the familiar-looking scar commonly left
by a liver transplant procedure -- and outline resembling
the Mercedes-Benz logo.
"My Mercedes-Benz!" he bellowed.
Let the Games Begin!
And just after the skies had darkened
completely, and the stadium lights burned their brightest,
Elliot, Robertson, Lewis, and Hagman carried the Games'
Flag onto the stadium's infield. The Games' youngest and
oldest participants - Bryce Jurek, 2 1/2 years old, of Team
Louisiana, Thomas Williams at 22 months of Team Rocky Mountain,
and Joseph DiNoia, of Team Philadelphia, 78 years old -
recited the Athlete's Oath. And in unison, everyone inside
the stadium, and those ringing its periphery, exclaimed,
"Let the Games Begin!"