When Daniel Huffman quit football, did exactly what his mom told
him not to do and started messing around with needles, folks in
tiny Rossville, Ill., shook his hand. How else was he supposed
to save his grandmother's life?
Still, if there was one kid in town you hated to see quit the
high school team, it was Daniel. "That kid lived for football,"
says his grandfather Daniel Allison. Young Daniel would count
the days from the end of school to the start of summer two-a-day
practices. He was the screamer on the team, the human pep rally.
O.K., so maybe he wasn't going straight to Florida State, but at
6'2" and 275 pounds, Daniel was where a lot of enemy tailbacks
ended up. "He would just engulf them like some huge amoeba,"
recalls his former coach, Dave McDonald. "And then he'd yell
This is Daniel's senior year at Rossville High. He is an
honor-roll student (A-plus average), a member of the school
chorus, the class vice president, a writer of poetry, a
part-time cleanup boy at a discount store and a onetime
shot-putter on the track team, but none of those things have
made him as proud as being a co-captain, starting defensive
tackle and occasional offensive tackle on the football team. In
a town such as Rossville (pop. 1,400), a hiccup of a place 118
miles south of Chicago, your senior year of football is
precious, and Daniel had planned to make this season a doozy.
Though he played primarily on defense, he had the soul of an
offensive lineman. He had no designs on stardom. Of the team's
star running back, Zeb Stephenson, Daniel once said, "It will be
my privilege to block for him."
Daniel is very big on making other folks' paths a little easier.
When diabetes left his grandmother Shirlee Allison legally blind
for a while, 14-year-old Daniel and his 13-year-old sister,
Kristina, did the dishes and folded the laundry. Daniel became
Shirlee's eyes, helping her walk, reading the mail to her. When
Shirlee's husband had his quintuple bypass two years ago, Daniel
got his grandmother through it. "Sometimes we raised them,"
Shirlee says of her grandchildren, "and sometimes they raised us."
Daniel is just as attentive to his friends. "He'll do anything
for us," says Lisa Masengale, a high school classmate. "He
writes me poetry when I'm down. He can always make me laugh."
Hard to figure where he got all the spare sunshine. Daniel's
mother, Alice, left the family when he was four. His father,
Barry, remarried, and an evil-stepmother/ungrateful-stepkids
thing broke out. Daniel and Kristina were miserable, but Barry
wasn't one to interfere. "He's kind of a partyer," Daniel says.
So the summer after Daniel finished seventh grade, he and
Kristina moved to Florida to live with Alice. That didn't work
out either, so after a year everyone agreed that the kids would
be best off living with their grandparents, the Allisons.
"My grandparents kinda saved me," says Daniel. "There's a whole
lot of drugs and stuff around here. I probably would've ended up
all messed up." Kristina eventually moved back to Florida, which
left Daniel and Shirlee as the oddest couple in town. Sure, they
shared a love of books and a certain hardheadedness, but he was
a 17-year-old growing uncontrollably, and she was a 60-year-old
disappearing before the town's eyes. After a time her
diabetes-ravaged kidneys were producing almost no urine. All
that poison the kidneys were supposed to filter out was
circulating through her.
As last spring grew warmer, Shirlee's trips to the hospital in
nearby Danville for dialysis got more frequent, and her
condition worsened. Her muscles were atrophying, her heart was
enlarged, and her blood pressure was dangerously low. "We all
figured there was no hope for her," says her neighbor Madge
But then Daniel had this crazy idea. He was sitting at a Burger
King with Shirlee after another brutal day of watching her on
the dialysis machine ("the metal and plastic vampire," he called
it in his diary). He had been thinking about how much he missed
her. Where was Gran, the kidder? Gran, the one you couldn't get
to shut up? Who was this 101-pound ghost? Who was this clothes
hanger of a woman, all bone where he used to plant his
good-night kiss? "Mrs. Allison," the doctor had told her, "many
people can live years on dialysis, but you aren't one of them."
Well, that made the situation sticky. She refused to take a
kidney from a relative. She was on the waiting list for a
cadaver kidney. That was good enough for her. "I'm not imposing
on anybody," she said. Daniel was so scared that he couldn't
watch her undergo treatment anymore. He started picking up
medical handbooks about dialysis. He talked to Shirlee's
doctors. He learned the dangers of becoming a kidney transplant
donor. He knew that if he gave Shirlee one of his kidneys, he
would have to give up contact sports forever--one hard hit from
behind, and he could end up on life support. On the other hand,
he learned that eight people die each day in the U.S. while
waiting for an organ. The wait for a cadaver kidney can be two
years. At the rate Shirlee was shrinking, that would be a year
and a half too much.
And so, somewhere between the Whopper and the onion rings,
Daniel made up his mind. "Gran," he said, "I can't take it
anymore. I want you to take my kidney."
"No, no, no," she said. "You're too young. What if something
"Gran, I don't care what happens to me. I'm doin' this!"
"Absolutely not," she said. "Besides, when I think about you
giving up football, it makes me sick to my stomach."
Daniel got good and mad. He yelled, "Gran, you always told me,
'Stand up for what you believe in.' Well, I'm standin' up!
You're takin' my kidney!"
You do not hear that every day at Burger King. Every head in the
joint turned. "Well," Shirlee whispered, sliding back in her
chair, "we'll see if we match."
Getting around Daniel's mother was even dicier. Alice was
foursquare against the donation. When Daniel decided to go ahead
with the operation anyway, Alice took action. She wrote a letter
to the University of Illinois Medical Center, where Daniel and
his grandmother wanted the transplant to take place, and asked
how the surgeons could take organs from minors. The center,
which had not known Daniel's age, declined to allow the operation.
Daniel was dogged. If he waited until his 18th birthday--Dec.
24--Shirlee might be too weak to survive the operation. "He was
ready to go to court on this," says Jeff Miller, transplant
coordinator for Dr. Frederick K. Merkel, who performs surgery at
the Illinois Medical Center and Chicago's Rush Presbyterian
Hospital and accepts living-relative transplant donors as young
as 16. The operation was on, at Rush.
The night before the July 9 surgery, Daniel was scared for both
Shirlee and himself. "Gran," he said, "I gotta ask you one
thing: Is this worth risking your life for?"
"Oh, honey," she said, laying her withered hand on his huge one.
"I have no life without this."
When she woke up in the intensive care unit, she already had her
color back. "My stars!" she said to a nurse. "Now that I've got
this 17-year-old kidney in me, I hope I don't feel like going
out and tackling somebody!" Across the hall, though, Daniel was
hurting. After a kidney transplant the donor gets months of
tests--the constant blood work, the working knowledge of the
hierarchy of hospital needles. Shirlee's scar is small and on
her pelvis. Daniel's is 18 inches long and wraps from his navel
nearly to his spine. It was Daniel who was in pain long after
the surgery, not Shirlee. Who said it's more blessed to give
than to receive?
But a lot of wonderful things also started happening. Daniel had
quit the football team, but the football team refused to quit
him. The players insisted that he wear his football jersey each
Friday. He went to every practice when he wasn't working at the
discount store. He rode on the senior players' float at
homecoming and made the speech at the pep rally before the game.
And on Friday nights you could hear his voice all over the
field: "C'mon, everybody! Clap!" Funny, how somebody who wasn't
even playing could be the toughest kid on the team.
Daniel is almost completely recovered. In fact, the doctors say
his remaining kidney will soon be twice the size it used to be.
They still haven't figured out how to measure his heart.
Daniel wants to be a writer, and he's applying for college
scholarships like crazy. As for Shirlee, her weight is up to
128, she rarely uses her cane, and her vision has improved. She
has even gone to some of Rossville's football games--something
she couldn't do before the surgery. You should have seen her
there, bursting with pride. "The boy loved his grandma more than
football," she marveled, wiping a tear from the corner of her
eye. "Whaddya think a that?"
Folks in town seem to think a lot of it. Folks out of town too.
Governor Jim Edgar wrote Daniel to say how proud he was of him,
and the story of Daniel's donation was on national as well as
local TV programs.
The Rossville football team didn't do too well, finishing the
season last Friday at 3-6. "We sure could have used Daniel to
put a body on somebody," said lineman Chad Smith. With 24
seconds left in Rossville's final game, a 28-3 win over
Palestine High, Rossville's Shaun York asked to leave the game
and be replaced by Daniel--who, with the coach's permission, had
put on shoulder pads, a helmet and a borrowed pair of cleats.
Daniel lined up 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and as
his quarterback took the snap and downed the ball, Daniel raised
his hands in a V for victory. "It was," he says, "the single
best memory of my life."
Now Daniel hopes for a victory for his friend Lisa. When she was
sick for two weeks last month, doctors discovered that she had a
badly infected kidney. Now Lisa, too, is learning all about
needles and even transplants. Luckily, she's got a 17-year-old
Mayo Clinic encyclopedia to talk to on the phone, to keep her
calm--and make her laugh. "He's getting me through it," she says.
Shirlee Allison knows how well Daniel can do that sort of thing.
After she went home from the hospital, she ran a
two-inch-by-one-inch ad in the Danville paper expressing her
love for her grandson. She says, "Every morning I wake up, I get
on my knees and thank two people: God and Daniel."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG His sacrifice won Daniel (in street clothes) his teammates' respect and a published tribute from Shirlee (opposite). [Daniel Huffman and others in locker room]
B/W PHOTO: COMMERCIAL-NEWS [See caption above--newspaper announcement with Daniel Huffman's picture]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Daniel lost football, but Shirlee gained a new lease on life. [Daniel Huffman and Shirlee Allison]