His football coach called him Cannonball because he was short and stocky and just sort of rolled around the field. He had played baseball since the T-ball league when he was 4. He told his mom and dad he would be a pro ballplayer one day. He was an eighth-grader, a boy in full, and he was in his third-period class at school in Pine Bluff, Ark., when he keeled over and died. A brain aneurysm. It was April 2004. Adron Shelby was 13 years old.
Down in Texas, an old man was dying. He had been a football hero, then an even bigger star as a broadcaster. He was also an alcoholic. He had gone through rehab and come out clean. But the drinking had worn his body out. He needed a new liver to survive. He lingered on the waiting list at the Mayo Clinic, hoping. It was April 2004. Pat Summerall was 73 years old.
In Arkansas, doctors asked Adron's family if they wanted to donate his organs. They had not thought about it before. They talked it over and said yes.
And that is how Adron Shelby gave Pat Summerall nine more years on this earth.
Adron's mother, Melva, says she knew before the public did that Summerall died on Tuesday. She got a message from Summerall's wife, Cheri. The families have kept in touch these past nine years. They always talk on the anniversary of the transplant. That was April 10. Just last week.
When the transplant happened, Melva had never heard of Summerall. She didn't know he had been a kicker for the New York Giants, and the voice of the Masters, U.S. Open tennis, and most of all, the big Sunday game in the NFL. Her husband, Garland, and their other son, Chandaryl, knew him a little, but not much. Adron (say it A-draughn) was the one into sports. The boy from Arkansas gave his liver to the man who played at Arkansas. The boy who loved football gave to the man who became a symbol for it.
Summerall sent the Shelbys an anonymous thank-you letter after he recovered. The Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency set up a meeting. Summerall was a broadcaster of few words. He had even fewer for Adron's family.
"I knew I wanted to say 'Thank you,' and I knew I wanted to say 'You saved my life,'" he told Jet magazine in 2005. "I knew I wanted to say 'I'm sorry for the tragic experiences you had.' But I didn't know exactly what to say."
Later, he spoke with actions. He and Cheri flew the Shelbys to the Summerall home in Southlake, a Dallas suburb, for a visit. He sent gifts at Christmas. He and Cheri made sure the Shelbys knew they remembered.
"He was very humble around us," Melva Shelby says.
Summerall died of cardiac arrest after having surgery for a broken hip. The Shelbys will attend his memorial in Texas on Saturday.
Summerall had Adron's liver almost as long as Adron did. Doctors have transplanted livers and kidneys and hearts for so long that it's easy to forget how astounding that is. One human being becomes part of another.
That's the way Melva Shelby thinks about it. Adron's organs went to five people that day. Pat Summerall is the only one she's met. The others are probably not famous like he was. But they needed something, too. Adron gave it to them. And that is how he lives on.