The gift that keeps on living

Mickey Giarratano cries easily these days. He admits to it as a kind of apology, though none is needed. But Mickey is from an older generation, one that prides itself on controlling its emotions, and so he feels the need to explain why his voice wavers and stops several times over the course of a 15-minute phone conversation.

Mickey is 80 years old. He had kidney-transplant surgery on July 11, making history as the oldest transplant patient in the history of Denver's Porter Adventist Hospital. The kidney came from his son, Nino, the 49-year-old head baseball coach at the University of San Francisco.

If a man can't cry under those circumstances, when can he?

"A lot of people have come up to me over the years and said, 'Nino is a special coach,'" Mickey says. He pauses to collect himself. "You know what I tell them? I tell them, 'Nino is a special son.'"

You could make an argument that the story of Mickey and Nino Giarratano is not a sports story, but you would be wrong. What took place in that hospital on that Monday afternoon last month had everything and nothing to do with sports.

The bond between this father and this son is like many father-son relationships: rooted in games and yet deeper than that. Mickey was a decorated athlete in Pueblo, Colo., where he still lives. Nino and his two brothers played and coached college baseball. Mickey's hard work for the government printing office allowed his sons to pursue games as a career. Nino has coached with USA Baseball, and his USF teams have made the NCAA regionals twice, including this past season. Some of Mickey's best post-retirement moments have come on trips to San Francisco to watch Nino's Dons.

He should get to do that again, thanks to his new kidney. He helped create it half a century ago, and now he's hoping it'll give him another 10 or 15 years.

Mickey went into the hospital for routine gallbladder surgery last fall; afterward, his kidneys failed. He spent 40 nights in the hospital and was resigned to three four-hour dialysis treatments a week for the rest of his life. People wait years for a transplant, and at 80, he didn't figure to be high on any donor lists. A live donor was his only realistic chance.

He told his wife, Josephine, "I'm not going to ask any of our kids."

That same day, Nino called and said, "How would you like to have my kidney, Dad?"

Mickey wasn't sure what to say. I'm guessing his voice wavered and stopped. And I'm guessing he apologized for that. He told Nino he should think about it. It's a big decision, there are a lot of factors involved -- the whole routine.

"My mind's made up," Nino said. "Let's figure out how to get it done."

If the doctors were good with giving an 80-year-old man a kidney transplant, Nino was good with the new kidney being one of his. He went through testing and was found to be a match, then he went through the meetings with the psychologists who outlined all the mental and physical consequences. "No second thoughts," Nino told them.

"I made the decision based on how I feel about him," Nino says. "He said he needed a transplant. I said, 'I'm the person.' I was a match. I was healthy enough. It was the right thing to do. If I needed something, he'd give it to me. He did that all his life. So if he needed something, I'd give it to him. That's how our parents raised us. We know how hard he worked to make us better people."

Mickey collects himself and says, voice quavering, "It's no surprise. I know my son Nino."

Before the operation, the doctor joked with Mickey by asking, "Why should I operate on you?" Mickey ran down the reasons: He's been married only 61 years and felt he needed more time with Josephine; he's got four kids, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild; he wanted to see his grandkids graduate from college, get married and have kids of their own.

He wanted to see Nino's teams play.

"Is that good enough?" Mickey asked, because he could have kept going. The doctor nodded. Good enough.

A few hours after the surgeries, Nino was wheeled into Mickey's room. There were 10 family members around Mickey's bed. They all held hands, Nino's right in Mickey's left, and said nothing for the longest time.

Nino, ever the coach, says, "That was a pretty good win for the family."

Two days later, the doctor who joked with Mickey about the operation told him, "This was the first time I ever performed a kidney transplant on an 80-year-old man, and this is the first time I'm going to release an 80-year-old man two days after kidney-transplant surgery."

As soon as the media-relations folks at USF found out about Nino and his dad, they wanted to spread the word. Nino was reluctant. He asked Mickey, who was all for it. "It wasn't done for publicity, obviously," Nino says, "but then when I saw how he felt about it and how good it was for him, I was all for it."

He's also adopted the cause. "I knew what I was doing," Nino says. "I learned, and it dispelled fears. You're not at any greater risk of kidney disease with one kidney as you are with two. I hope something good can come of this. It's not for me -- I've been repaid a hundred times since I gave it to him."

Meanwhile, Mickey has a life to live. He's planning on playing some golf, and this week he's going to make a trip to Coors Field to watch the Rockies. Not only that, but he's going to do something he hasn't been able to do for what seems like forever: Eat a hot dog.

"Did you know they have four different kinds of hot dogs there?" he asks. "I told my wife I just might try all four."

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.