PHILADELPHIA - Two former Marines bonded by a kidney donation and their love of football are now headed to the Super Bowl.
John Gladwell, a Kansas City resident and Chiefs fan, donated a kidney to Philadelphia Eagles backer Billy Welsh two years ago after Welsh, who lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease.
The two men first met at a military base in the early 2000s and remained in touch through social media after they left the service. When Welsh made a post in 2019 asking if anyone was willing to become a donor, Gladwell responded and soon learned he was a 99% match. He eventually flew to Philadelphia, where the 10-hour surgical procedure was performed.
"It meant the world to me. I was speechless. John Gladwell is my hero," Welsh said Wednesday when the two men appeared on NBC's Today show.
Gladwell said he didn’t hesitate to make the donation because Welsh has a son who is a little older than his own grandson.
"I wasn’t going to let his son grow up without his dad being there for everything," Gladwell said.
The all-expenses-paid Super Bowl trip was put together by Eagles President Don Smolenski and his Chiefs counterpart Mark Donovan. Smolenski said the story symbolizes the unifying aspects of the Marine Corps and the NFL. The team presidents spoke with the two men during a video call last Sunday, letting them know they would be flown to Arizona on Friday, put up in hotel rooms and have side-by-side seats for the big game.
"The opportunity to bring these two guys together, their two teams playing on the biggest stage in sports, it’s very, very humbling and gratifying," Smolenski told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Welsh said he was "speechless" when he got the news. Gladwell, meanwhile, thought he was getting a spam call when a Super Bowl Host Committee representative contacted him Sunday morning.
"They’re like, ‘You’re going to the Super Bowl,’" Gladwell said, remembering the shock. "I’m like, ‘I am?’"