Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 15, 2007.
CONCORD, N.C -- Charlotte Ray knew she was overmatched. As caring and considerate as her son was, he was just as hardheaded. So when Jason walked into the kitchen that afternoon and flipped his driver's license onto the table, grinning ear to ear after the decision he had just made, she knew she was in trouble.
"What does this little heart mean?" she remembers asking, pointing to the tiny red icon on his license.
"It means I'm going to be an organ donor," Jason said.
"Let's be serious," Charlotte shot back. "Your father and I believe that you come here with all these little parts, you ought to leave here with all these parts. I'm not so sure about this."
Charlotte was putting up a fight, but deep down she knew it was a waste of time. Her son wouldn't budge. He never did. At 19, he had the maturity of someone twice his age. Though he worshiped his parents, he didn't accept being told what to think. By anyone.
It's the reason he burned through Sunday school teachers like Dale Earnhardt burned through tires, the reason he was once suspended in junior high after questioning the authority of a teacher. Jason Ray accepted zero absolutes about the world in which he lived -- he wanted to probe, research and discover the meanings of life for himself. And no one -- Mom and Dad included -- could change that.
"Mom, you're crazy," he told his disapproving mother. "If something happens to me and I have a heart that could help save someone's life, then what good does it do to bury that heart in the ground? That doesn't make any sense at all."
It was tough to argue the point, so Charlotte moved on.
"I just kind of gave up," she says, "figuring it won't have anything to do with my life anyway."
DESTINED FOR GREATNESS
The tryout judges gave no specific instructions. No rules. The only thing they told Jason to do was put on the costume for the yellow-horned ram mascot, Rameses, at the University of North Carolina and prove he deserved to wear the suit.
So Jason climbed into the furry blue and white outfit, pulled on the smelly Ram head and did his thing. Within seconds, the traffic on the two-lane stretch of South Road that cuts through the heart of campus stopped. On the north side of the street, they chanted, "Tar." On the south side, they chanted, "Heels." Horns honked, students screamed and Jason climbed on top of cars. It was the beginning of a perfect marriage. North Carolina had found its newest mascot. Jason Ray had found his newest vehicle of expression.
"When you step into that suit, you become this giant cartoon character," says Tyler Treadaway, one of two current Rameses. "But Jason was that way every day -- he was born to wear that suit."
Emmitt and Charlotte Ray always knew their son was special. Heck, even his birth was something of a miracle, the fruit of a love between two teenage sweethearts who went their separate ways after high school only to find each other again some 25 years later. While they both had children from previous marriages, Jason was their only child together.
He was a pesky kid, the type who, in the middle of a whipping from Emmitt, would mouth back, "That doesn't hurt." (After which, Emmitt says he would respond, "Who said I was finished?")
Jeff Oakes, Jason's youth pastor who later became one of his closest friends, remembers the time he was trying to teach a group of teenagers about God when Jason entered the room and sat down, positioning himself about three inches from Jeff's face. "He was always testing people," Oakes says. "I've never known another kid to be so distracting to a classroom environment. If you weren't 'on,' he could tear apart the entire classroom in a second."
Behind Jason's wit and cleverness was a heart. Emmitt and Charlotte were touched when their son came home from mission trips to Haiti and Honduras with tears in his eyes, unable to shake the images of starving, sick children from his head.
They were amazed when a high school girlfriend cheated on Jason with one of his friends and he responded not in anger but in prayer, writing in a journal that his parents would later find:
Thanks for teaching me patience and forgiveness ... I pray for them now.
I pray you would speak to them and they would see the light and love that only comes from you.
And they smiled when he carried a Bible with him to his senior prom, knowing he still had to prepare for a sermon he had been asked to give the next morning. Jason, they like to tell people now, "got the message." At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, with that gregarious, in-your-face, who-in-the-world-is-that-guy personality, he loved people, connecting with them through laughter, tears or stimulating conversation.
At North Carolina, he began every morning the same way: by crawling out of bed about 8 a.m. to meet two of his roommates for prayer. "And he hated mornings," says Chad Hines, one of the roommates. "So as soon as we were finished, he'd head right back to bed."
Unbeknownst to his parents, Jason led a Friday morning Bible study for older men. On Tuesday nights, he was a student leader for InterVarsity, a campus ministry.
Yet for all of his faith, for all the stories that make him sound like some sort of can-do-no-wrong saint, Jason was just like any other college kid. He loved beer, keeping a journal in which he rated all the beers he tasted, and what he liked and didn't like about them. He even held a Bible study at a bar in Chapel Hill, N.C., before InterVarsity's leadership told him that was a no-no. He loved smoking cigars for the camaraderie and conversation it stirred. And he was a prankster, one night lighting a package of firecrackers under a friend's dorm room door and then hiding under his sheets when the police and fire department responded to the smoke alarm. "He was hardcore," close friend Tyler Hollis says. "Whatever he did, he was just so darn passionate about it: Religion, music, school, Rameses -- it didn't matter. Whatever he was focused on, he was 100 percent hardcore."
It wasn't unusual for Jason to stop on his way to class and help an overwhelmed underclassman -- someone he didn't even know -- carry moving boxes into a dorm room. Brown Walters, the North Carolina cheerleading coach, remembers the day Jason introduced himself on a bus ride to Wake Forest. Ninety minutes after leaving Chapel Hill, the bus pulled into Winston-Salem and the two were still engrossed in conversation. "We were talking like we had known each other for years," Walters says. "And that's the way he was -- with everybody. Whether it was the first time he had met you or you were his lifelong best friend, he treated you with such warmth. I simply haven't known many people like that. The world is not that way."
For Jason, every day was a quest to discover something or someone new. While some kids are content listening to music or reading about the Sistine Chapel, Jason wanted to experience both. So he crisscrossed the Southeast to see the Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine and Tool. He studied in Europe, seeing Michelangelo's greatest work with his own eyes. He visited Spain, running with the bulls in Pamplona in 2006.
Through it all, he probed life's deeper questions, be they about religion, death, sex or anything else. Jason combed through the Bible, picking apart every passage he could and pestering Oakes with questions: Why are there 66 books? How authentic are the writings? What does the Bible say about drinking? About sex? About death?
Stuffed into his pockets and backpack were miniature journals. Whenever Jason had a spare second on campus, he'd jot down his thoughts for the day. Maybe it was lyrics to a new song for Nine PM Traffic, the band he and a group of friends started when they were 15. Maybe it was a prayer for a struggling friend. Or maybe it was a conversation he was having with himself in hopes of conquering his biggest fear: the death of his parents.
Wrote Jason, in one miniature blue notepad:
Is it possible to have a healthy fear of death? Since Adam, all but two people have passed away. It's an inevitable end. People must see death, for ignoring it is simply lying to yourself. There are two ways to look at it: 1.) people acknowledge death and live toward it. 2.) people choose to ignore death and distance themselves away from it.
Jason accumulated enough credits to graduate from North Carolina in December, but had no interest in leaving college early. He wanted to finish the final semester with his friends. And he wanted to be on the sidelines, as Rameses, when North Carolina won the national men's basketball championship. "He was always convinced they were going to win his senior year," close friend Nick Burns says. "Like that was his destiny or something."
In his final semester before graduation, everything was coming together. Jason was about to graduate, with honors, from the prestigious Kenan-Flagler Business School. He had job offers on the table in Boston and nearby Raleigh. And he had begun dating Madison Withrow. He'd told his parents he thought she might be "the one."
"One thing that shocked me more than anything in all the years I knew Jason was when he would talk about Madison," Oakes says. "He was always so insecure. All this, 'I'm not sure she likes me. I think I like her more than she likes me.' And that was so incredibly out of character for him. I told him he was nuts. Everybody loved him."
While Emmitt envisioned his son as a future CEO, Jason had other ideas. He wanted to be a rock star. Music fueled the everyday passion in his life. From blocks away, you would hear Jason's SUV rolling down the street, blasting Audioslave, Jimi Hendrix or the Red Hot Chili Peppers at deafening volumes.
In December, Jason and his Nine PM Traffic bandmates committed themselves to making a life out of their love for music. Emmitt recalls the night last winter when he and his son stayed up past 2 a.m., discussing whether Jason's pursuit of rock superstardom was a good idea. The plan, Jason explained, was to accept the job offer in Raleigh and then, in his free time, practice with the band and try to build a local fan base. He would use the marketing and management skills he learned in college and combine it with his skills as a frontman to see just what Nine PM Traffic could accomplish.
"I went up to bed that night and Charlotte says to me, 'How did it go? Did you talk him out of it?' " Emmitt recalls. "And I told her, 'Honey, I had to come up here and go to bed because your son was starting to convince me that this was a good idea. It was all starting to make too much sense.' "
This past March, less than a week before traveling with the Tar Heels for the NCAA Tournament, he began chasing those dreams, laying down the vocals for the band's demo CD. Little did he know the lyrics he had written and recorded for "My Ordinary," the band's first single, would prove chilling later that month.
A car crash grabs your attention. The white flags fly for protection. A heartbeat is a window of opportunity ...
SENTENCED TO DEATH
Ronald Griffin was waiting. He couldn't walk. He couldn't talk. He could barely breathe. The only thing keeping him alive was the eight-pound machine strapped to his stomach, pumping his heart with the rhythmic, deafening beat of a bass drum. Doctors told Griffin to guard his left ventricle assist device, or LVAD, as if his life were at stake. It was. One pulled wire, one incorrectly pushed button, and the results could have been catastrophic.
"You would hear this 'boom, boom, boom,' " Ronald says. "And I was in awe. I knew that boom was keeping me alive."
This is what life had deteriorated into for the 58-year-old man from Somerset, N.J. Thirteen years earlier, doctors had diagnosed the former postal worker with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy. But what began as a simple shortness of breath now threatened to kill him. Nearly every minute of every day was spent fighting to breathe. "If I rolled over in bed, it felt like I had run a marathon," he says.
He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. What he wanted to say, he wrote on paper. Despite lengthy pauses between every bite, eating was nearly impossible. But perhaps worst of all, he couldn't comfortably hug his wife, his two children or his grandchildren. "Our granddaughter Maiya ran up and jumped on him one day and this look of fear just came over his eyes," says Ronald's wife, Stephanie. "She could have killed him."
Doctors had tried everything to ease Ronald's pain. A defibrillator. A pacemaker. A PIC line that delivered medicine directly to his heart. But there was only one long-term solution: a new heart. And the same machine that was keeping him alive, the LVAD, was also complicating his quest for a transplant, because it was causing strokes. Ronald suffered two strokes in a span of a few months, and, after each one, doctors would change his recipient status to "inactive," because the strokes made him too weak to survive a transplant.
During one such three-week period, a heart became available that matched Ronald's large frame and rare blood type. But he didn't get it. He would later discover the heart he missed out on stopped beating on the table.
After his second stroke, in March, doctors didn't want to wait three weeks before putting him back on the list. So they consulted with a nationally renown stroke expert who agreed that since Ronald hadn't suffered any bleeding on the brain from his strokes, he could possibly be ready for a transplant in two weeks.
So Friday, March 23 -- two weeks after his most recent stroke -- Ronald Griffin's status was switched back to active. Later that night, some 50 miles up the New Jersey Turnpike, North Carolina would play USC in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
DENNIS KORZELIUS WAS waiting. Two months earlier, he had married the woman of his dreams. And now doctor after doctor, expert after expert, stood in front of the 43-year-old man from Toms River, N.J., and told him he was going to die. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver as well as end-stage liver failure caused by hepatitis C. At best, they told him, he had eight months.
It just didn't seem fair. Sure, he had lived a reckless life, drinking, partying, diving off house tops into backyard pools. But finally he had met someone who made him feel alive without all that. And Pattie felt the same way about him. They had both been married before and both had kids. Dennis had little Darius, a 5-year-old fireball with the sweet baseball swing, and Pattie had two melt-your-heart little girls, 9-year-old Cassidy and 7-year-old Delilah.
They finally had their family. And now bad luck was tearing it apart.
"Here we had just gotten married, we're supposed to be enjoying our lives together and learning about one another and, instead, he essentially died," Pattie says. "It sucked."
On the outside, Dennis told people he was ready to die. Hear it from enough doctors and you start to believe it, he explains. He told his friends he had accepted his fate, that the only thing he wanted was one last party with all his buds back at the house. But Pattie saw the other side. She was there when no one else was around, when the kids were in bed and Dennis would sob.
His stomach was as swollen as if he were pregnant. His skin was jaundiced, as yellow as a school bus. He needed a new liver. But without significant medical insurance, the family had to come up with $30,000 to prove he could afford the post-transplant treatments and medications. One hospital administrator suggested if Pattie and Dennis got a divorce, Dennis' medical treatment would be covered because he would then likely qualify for Medicaid.
"I told that woman I'd rather die than get a divorce," Dennis says. "That wasn't going to happen."
A representative from Medicaid, Pattie says, suggested if the family went on welfare and lost its home, Dennis could qualify for benefits and most of his expenses would be covered. But that wasn't going to happen either. Eventually, a friend anonymously donated $15,000 and the Korzeliuses raised the rest of the money to save his life.
ANTWAN HUNTER WAS waiting. He didn't feel any pain, he didn't sense any discomfort, but inside he was dying. His left kidney had failed and been removed shortly after his birth and, day by day, his right kidney was following. And yet he couldn't feel a thing. Felt like a perfectly normal high school kid from Newark, N.J. The only reason he even saw a doctor was because he had a problem wetting the bed. The family physician suggested they see a kidney specialist, and the news was crushing.
"The doctors were amazed. They had never seen anything like him," says Antwan's mother, Latisha. "They were like, 'He has never been sick? He has never been on dialysis?' And we'd tell them, 'No, no, no. He says he feels fine.' But then they told us: Antwan had a serious, life-threatening problem."
What concerned doctors most was Antwan's creatinine level. While someone with one healthy kidney would have a level of roughly 1.8, meaning the kidney was adequately disposing of the body's chemical waste through urine, Antwan's score was 4.2. At 5.0, doctors said, his kidney likely would fail.
A doctor finally pulled Latisha out of the examination room and put things to her bluntly. "Your son needs a new kidney. And soon."
DAVID ERVING WAS waiting. But not much longer. For 27 years, he had fought a ferocious war against diabetes. The disease had taken his right eye and much of the vision in his left. It had left his bones so brittle that, walking down the stairs one day, his left leg simply snapped. When the break failed to heal cleanly, he was left with a curve at the shin, a bow so severe that his left leg was three inches shorter than his right.
Three days a week for the past 10 years, he had awoken at 4:30 in the morning to go for dialysis, where he would sit in a chair for four hours while a machine recycled his blood 87 times. From that chair, he had seen fellow dialysis patients -- people he considered friends -- die next to him during treatment.
His arms were covered in scars from all the needles, a mangled mess of skin and tissue so grotesque that even one of New York's finest plastic surgeons couldn't fix it.
At 40, he had been in the hospital more than 60 times. Sometimes it was as basic as having his gallbladder removed. Other times he was in intensive care, lost in a coma.
But every time he somehow survived. He wouldn't be that lucky much longer. He needed a new kidney and a new pancreas. In 1997, when he applied to become a donor recipient, he was told he wasn't eligible. Doctors said he wouldn't survive the surgery. Seven years later, in 2004, a nurse suggested he apply to another hospital. This time he was approved, with a catch: David had several cavities, so doctors wanted him to have his remaining 22 teeth extracted before they would put him on the list. That would eliminate any concern about an infection in his mouth after the transplant and jeopardizing his life and the health of his new organs.
"So that's what I did," says David, from Millstone Township, N.J. "Had 'em all pulled out."
Then he waited. For three years. On three occasions, he received a phone call that a pair of organs had become available and he was the backup. But not once did he move to the top of the list.
In the spring, he told his mom that he didn't want to wait any longer. As soon as his current catheter failed, something that was certain to happen any day, he wasn't going to let doctors insert a new one. He was quitting dialysis. And he knew full well what that meant.
He was going to die.
"My organs would fill up with fluid, and I'd probably choke to death," David says. "But I didn't care. I didn't want there to be a next time. I didn't want to live my life like this anymore."
A NIGHTMARE COME TRUE
Emmitt Ray wanted to believe there had been some sort of mistake. He knew the nurse had called his home in Concord, N.C., and asked specifically for the mother or father of Jason Ray. He knew he and Charlotte had just landed in New Jersey on a private jet. He knew a police escort had rushed them to Hackensack University Medical Center. But he still had hope.
Yet as he walked the halls of the hospital and looked into one of the intensive-care trauma units, that all changed.
It was Jason.
Emmitt's loud and outgoing son looked pasty and lifeless. His head was swollen and bandaged. He had gauze stuffed in his ears, his nose. Tubes and wires seemed to be plugged in everywhere.
There had been an accident. On Route 4, a few hundred yards from where the Tar Heels were staying at the Fort Lee Hilton. Jason had left the team hotel to walk to a gas station so he could grab a burrito and a soda before that night's game. On the way back, while Jason was walking alongside the highway in his North Carolina sweats, a Mercury Mountaineer struck him.
The result was a cracked skull and catastrophic brain injury. He was in a coma. A life-support machine was the only thing keeping him alive. The neurosurgeon who met the Rays painted a grim picture for their son's future.
"The doctor told me, 'Mr. Ray, I'm going to do everything I can to save your son, but I'm not God and this is going to take His intervention, because I've never seen someone injured as catastrophically as Jason make a comeback,' " Emmitt says.
That Friday night, the Tar Heels beat USC in their Sweet 16 matchup at the Meadowlands, but they did so without Rameses on the sideline. By Saturday morning, two of Jason's half brothers had arrived. And later that day, carloads from Chapel Hill started pouring into New Jersey. Some 30 friends -- among them Jason's current girlfriend, his former girlfriend, roommates, bandmates, InterVarsity members -- came to visit, hoping they could say or do the right thing to help bring Jason back.
Meanwhile, news of the accident spread across the country. Internet community groups, such as Facebook and MySpace, lit up with prayers and dedications to Jason.
In the hospital, Jason's friends took turns sleeping in the waiting room and visiting their friend. They laughed, they cried, they told stories. On Sunday, Jason's fever was down. When Charlotte touched her son's face, she felt something move. Madison saw him lift his shoulder. So she told him to do it again. And he did. They ran into the hallway and grabbed a nurse. There was hope.
Only there wasn't. These were involuntary reflexes, the nurse explained, not brain activity. Later that day, the neurologists returned and pulled Emmitt and Charlotte out of the room. A series of tests revealed Jason had suffered an irreversible stroke on both sides of the brain. He had no brain activity.
Stephanie Falbo, a transplant nurse from the New Jersey Sharing Network, stood at the nurse's station. Anytime there is a patient with no brain activity -- whether a donor or not -- the Sharing Network is summoned. Flipping through Jason's medical chart, Falbo saw a copy of his license. She saw the little red heart.
"What's this?" she asked one of the nurses.
"It means he was an organ donor," the nurse explained. "In North Carolina, that's how they identify a donor on their license."
Falbo's eyes began to water. "I was just blown away," she says. "What an unbelievable decision that this young man made to sign his donor card. I couldn't stop thinking about how brave he was."
Falbo then met with Emmitt, explaining who she was and why she was there. She reminded him Jason had signed his license as an organ donor and, when the time came, they wanted his permission to maintain Jason's blood pressure, stabilize his temperature and keep him on the ventilator to keep his organs alive. Initially, this didn't sit well with the father.
"She was talking about my son's organs like they were a used carburetor on a '62 Chevrolet," Emmitt says. "I had to stop her. I just didn't want to hear about it."
"He kept saying he wanted to take Jason home, he wanted to take Jason home," Falbo says. "And what father wouldn't feel that way? But this was about doing the right thing. This was about following Jason's wishes."
Later that day, the North Carolina basketball season ended with an Elite Eight loss to Georgetown. No one in the North Carolina family, including coach Roy Williams, knew how to feel.
"It hit very hard," Williams said of Jason's accident. "It hit you right between the eyes and brought you back to reality. I couldn't imagine what his family was going through losing someone that young."
In the wee hours of Monday morning, the results from the final round of neurological tests arrived, confirming what doctors feared. There was no brain activity. At 8:38 a.m. on Monday, March 26, Jason Kendall Ray was pronounced dead. Shortly thereafter Emmitt signed the release allowing the New Jersey Sharing Network to recover Jason's organs. He thought long and hard about not signing the form, but said he knew if he went against his son's wishes, "Jason would have come back and haunted me."
So he signed his name on that paper -- with one stipulation: Emmitt asked Falbo to go into surgery with his son, to ensure his body would be treated with dignity.
"Emmitt said to me, 'This is my boy,' " Falbo recalls. " 'Please take care of him.' And as a nurse, when a father tells me to take care of their child, I'm going to do that. Because the gift that Jason gave, there is no greater gift."
A NEW LIFE
Fifty miles to the south, Ronald Griffin needed to be alone. For two years, he had waited for this day, and now it had finally arrived. There was a heart. A good heart. It would fit his 6-foot-3 frame, and it matched his O-negative blood type. Two weeks removed from his last stroke, he was at the top of the list, sick enough that his case was a high priority but healthy enough that he could still survive the surgery.
With the help of nurses and his wife, Ronald rose out of the hospital bed and headed for the bathroom. There, all alone, he leaned on the sink and stared into the mirror. He began to cry. He had been living in the hospital since the beginning of December, relying on a machine to pump his heart. He had been waiting for some good news. And now, it seemed, his wait was over.
"I couldn't believe this was actually happening," Ronald says. "I couldn't believe that my time had come. And in the back of my mind, I couldn't believe that somebody had died for this."
As he headed for surgery, Ronald's doctor told him he couldn't have drawn up a more perfect heart. "If I were you," the doctor said, "I'd be a Carolina fan."
Later that evening, when Ronald came to in recovery, it didn't take long for him to notice something was different. "I could feel the blood flowing through my veins," he says. "I hadn't felt that in so, so long."
At 4 a.m. that same day, Dennis Korzelius' phone rang. A liver had become available and Dennis was second on the list. He needed to be at the hospital in two hours, just in case. So Dennis and Pattie rushed to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey hospital in Newark, and sat in the waiting room. Shortly thereafter, a woman came out with some news: "Listen, the other gentleman on the list didn't make it," Pattie remembers her saying. "Apparently, he needed that liver last night, not today. You're up."
As doctors and nurses prepared Dennis for surgery, Pattie sat in the waiting room laughing, crying, wondering. She couldn't stop thinking this was the break she was waiting for. She was going to get her husband back.
At the same time, Jason Ray's friends were already on the road heading back to Chapel Hill. A phone call from Jason's stepbrother Allen confirmed what they already had accepted: The man who had given them so much was now gone. Word quickly spread through the UNC community. Days later, an estimated 2,500 people formed a line that stretched six hours long to see Jason's body before his memorial service.
Late that Monday night, the phone rang at Latisha Hunter's house, stirring her out of bed. A kidney had become available for 16-year-old Antwan, who was spending the night at his aunt's house. Latisha called her mother, then her sister. When Antwan came to the phone, his mom gave him the news.
"I was scared," Antwan remembers. "I told my mom, 'I don't want to do it tomorrow. I feel fine.' "
But his mother told him he didn't have a choice. So shortly before 6 a.m. Tuesday, they headed for Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where doctors explained everything that was going to happen that day.
"We didn't tell him somebody had to die for this," Latisha says. "He didn't know."
Just down the hall, doctors were also preparing David Erving for surgery. His phone rang a little after 6 a.m. Monday with news that a pancreas and kidney might become available, so he needed to be ready. It didn't ring again until 10:30 that night. David needed to be at the hospital in an hour. But he doesn't drive. His mother doesn't drive. So they called an ambulance. At 9:15 Tuesday morning, he was in surgery, just down the hall from Antwan.
By 6 that night, it was over.
"I asked the doctor if everything was all right, if everything was working the way it should be," says David's mother, Nancy Erving. "And the doctor just said, 'Listen, he was producing urine before we could get him off the table. I think he's going to be fine.'"
Nancy could only think of one reply: "Thank you for giving me my son back."
By Tuesday night, less than 48 hours after Jason had died, four people had a new chance at life. The coincidences were staggering. What if the NCAA Selection Committee had put the Tar Heels in another region? What if they had lost their first- or second-round game? What if Jason had never been a mascot? What if he just had ordered room service? The recipients' stories are equally stunning, covering almost every segment of society: rich and poor, young and old, black and white. Each surgery was a success, and all the recipients had begun the road to recovery. What they didn't realize was the emotional hurdles would stand as tall as the physical obstacles.
Ronald Griffin was lying in bed, watching the morning newscast, when it first hit him. He had known about Jason's accident -- it was front-page news in New Jersey. And remembering what his doctor had said about being a "Carolina fan," he was certain he had Jason's heart. Lying in bed that morning and watching clips of Jason's memorial service, the magnitude of what had taken place finally hit him.
"I was numb," Ronald says. "I mean, I knew it was Jason's heart, and I couldn't believe I was looking at his picture on TV. I was glad that I had gotten a heart, but he was just a kid. He was 21 years old, younger than my daughter. I had so many mixed emotions. I didn't think I could ever be happy again."
Dennis Korzelius understood those emotions. The day after his transplant, a hospital employee mistakenly handed Pattie a stack of papers. She was told they were hers, but they weren't. They were Jason's transplant paperwork. In what is typically an anonymous process, it was an alarming mistake. Like Ronald, Dennis, too, now had a face and a name to go with his story.
"If I could, I would give it back to him in a heartbeat," Dennis says. "I knew I was dying. I had come to terms with it. Jason had no idea. And to me, that's not fair. What makes me any more special than him? I was just simply not all right with the thought that somebody had to die for this."
Dennis told his story to a family friend who writes for The Atlantic City Press, hoping to raise money for Jason's foundation. When 7-year-old Delilah told the reporter she hoped Jason had "lived a happy life," that caught Emmitt's eye. Eventually, he got on the phone with the Korzelius family to ensure them, yes, Jason lived one heck of a life.
"I just had to let them know that," Emmitt says. "It bothered me. We pretty much just had a big pity party on the phone, everyone was crying. We probably didn't say more than 10 words. But I wanted them to know. I wanted them to understand who my son was."
A NEW FAMILY
Against a humid, gray, late-summer day, Charlotte Ray walked across the damp grass, her heart fluttering at the thought of meeting the four men who had received her son's organs.
"Emmitt," she said to her husband as they approached Ronald, Dennis, Antwan and David, "why don't you give me your hand?"
A Rameses pin was stuck to the lapel of her jacket, while Emmitt wore a blue North Carolina polo shirt. No one knew quite what to expect. The Rays had come back to New Jersey for two reasons. After reading that newspaper article and seeing Delilah's quote, they wanted the recipients to know: Jason had squeezed more into 21 years than most people did in 80. And they wanted to do what they could to relieve any guilt.
Emmitt had recently met a two-time double-lung transplant recipient who told him about the challenges she faced accepting the fact two people had to die for her to live. Knowing his son and the love he had for people, Emmitt couldn't bear the thought of anyone struggling to accept Jason's gift. So when the Sharing Network approached the Rays asking if they would be interested in meeting the recipients, they said yes.
As they continued their hand-in-hand walk, climbing the eight patio stairs to where the recipients waited, Emmitt began to introduce himself. He barely said a word before Ronald Griffin interrupted him with a hug.
"I love you," Ronald said.
With two children of his own, he couldn't stomach the thought of standing in Emmitt's or Charlotte's shoes. His transplant had gone smoothly, and between the rehab and check-ups and anti-rejection medicine, he had spent the past few months wrapping himself in Jason. He Googled and learned everything he could, laminating one clipping about Jason's love for life and placing it above the visor in his car.
Though he had never met Jason, Ronald felt he knew him as well as anyone. So, on the morning of the reunion, when he was struggling to gather the courage to meet Emmitt and Charlotte, he says he sought out a familiar source for encouragement. "I talked to Jason," Ronald says. "And he told me, 'Ronald, this is what we do. We love the spotlight, we love meeting new people. This is going to be just fine. Once you meet my mother and father, you're going to feel a lot better. Trust me.' And from that point on I felt better."
Later that night, when the two were sharing a private moment, Ronald told Emmitt about everything he had been through. He told him about the conversation he had with Jason that morning and how he will never ever forget the young man who helped save his life. "As long as I breathe and I'm here," Ronald told Emmitt, "your son is still here, too."
Standing on the patio, waiting for Emmitt and Charlotte to arrive, Dennis Korzelius was as nervous as anyone. He was worried that maybe they would be angry or have hard feelings. Worst of all, he was worried they would give him the same look that so many of his doctors had: This is your fault. You drank too much.
Sitting in a refrigerator back home in Tom's River, N.J., was a reminder of the life Dennis used to lead. It was a 12-ounce can of Budweiser, the last can from the last 30-pack Dennis and Pattie opened before doctors told him he was going to die.
As Emmitt began sharing his story about the woman he met in Chapel Hill and how he was here to make sure Jason's recipients weren't burdened by similar feelings, Dennis finally spoke up. "You mean I'm not the only one?" he asked.
"No," Emmitt told him.
"No," Ronald said.
Later that night, Emmitt pulled Dennis aside, explaining the last thing Jason would want would be for him to feel guilty. "Jason lived his life to the fullest," Emmitt said. "Dennis, now it's your turn."
The message began to sink in. The burden began to lift. Nothing was going to change overnight, but Dennis began to feel a little bit better. And then he started to tackle a new challenge: living his life in a way that Jason would have been proud of.
"I'm not a Goody Two-shoes. I probably never will be," says Dennis, who plans to have his Harley painted Carolina blue. "And I don't regret the path that led me here or else it wouldn't have been my life. But somehow, someway, our paths crossed. And now it's up to me to get on the right path."
Antwan Hunter didn't have much to say that night. When his nerves finally settled down, the teen wanted to know the simple things: What kind of music did Jason listen to? What did he like to eat? What were his favorite sports?
Antwan told Charlotte that doctors had decided to let him play basketball and he was excited to try out for his school team this season.
"You make sure you e-mail or call me as soon as you find out if you made it," Charlotte said. "I gotta know."
Emmitt and Charlotte played a DVD of Jason that boyhood friend Nick Burns created for the night. They also brought a set of four photos that they offered to each of the recipients. Two days after the reunion, Antwan and his mother wore white T-shirts that read, "Remembered Forever," with a giant photo of Jason on the front.
"Just something I wanted to do," he explained.
But it was David Erving's story that touched Emmitt and Charlotte the most. When they heard about his 27-year fight against diabetes, when they watched him struggle to get around with a cane, when they put their arms out to give him a hug and realized he couldn't see them, their hearts melted. They couldn't comprehend someone who had been in dialysis treatment for nearly a decade, who had all 22 teeth extracted on the chance to receive a new organ.
They sat in amazement as they heard about the simple things that now make David happy. He sleeps in a recliner, in a shed behind his 91-year-old grandmother's house, because it's the one place where he can control the temperature -- and what's on TV. Because of his new organs, David no longer has to watch his blood sugar, he no longer has diabetes. He no longer has to go for dialysis.
"If Jason could have picked the type of person he wanted to help, David would have been right at the top of the list," Charlotte says. "He's lived a hard life. Such a challenging, difficult life. But because of my son, he doesn't feel that pain anymore. How can that not make a mother proud?"
Before the night was through, the entire group gathered for a portrait. A family portrait. And there they were: Emmitt and Charlotte in the middle. David to the left, clutching onto his cane. Ronald to the right, sitting back in a chair with a wide grin on his face. Dennis in the back. And farther to the left, Antwan with the gigawatt smile that could light up a room, proudly holding a 3-by-5 picture of Jason.
Little did Emmitt and Charlotte realize that when their son signed that card, when he decided he wanted to be an organ donor, he was giving them a gift as well. Jason is still with them today. He's just with them through these other four people.
"We can't go back and get Jason," Emmitt says. "And I'd hate to tell you what would happen to those recipients if we could. But when you hear these stories, when you listen to where these people were and where they are now, you realize -- it isn't all about Jason. It's as much about them.
"And if you hear these stories and don't think that there is some sort of greater architect working here, you've got something wrong with you."
A LASTING LEGACY
The Carolina blue ribbon is still stuck to the Rays' red mailbox, tattered and worn from a searing North Carolina summer. So, too, is the faded white ribbon on the front door.
Inside the home, there's a basketball signed by the 2006-07 North Carolina men's basketball team. There are 12 encyclopedia-thick photo albums overflowing with thousands of cards, notes and printed e-mails. They came from 12 countries, 38 states and nearly every county in North Carolina.
Many of the stories Emmitt and Charlotte have heard. Though their emotions won't allow them to read more than a paragraph or two before choking up, they stood in the front of the church for six hours after Jason's memorial service on that cool night in spring. Facing many of these people in person. Hearing their tales of what their son had meant to them:
Jason introduced me to God.
Jason helped me become a better person.
Jason helped me appreciate life.
I've never had a friend like Jason.
I've never had a student like Jason.
The family began the Jason Kendall Ray Foundation, with the goal of endowing a scholarship at UNC and raising money for missionary trips and other Christian-based efforts.
But nothing numbs the pain. For all their son accomplished, for all the people he touched, he still is no longer here. Emmitt still walks down the stairs each morning and heads straight for the kitchen credenza, staring at a series of framed pictures of his son. The tears stream down his face.
"I just couldn't stop thinking that my son will never walk into that kitchen again," he says. "And that tore me up like a soup sandwich."
Charlotte can't stop watching the class project, in which her son was the star, that Nick Burns videotaped the day before Jason left for New Jersey. "It was like a visit from Jason," she says. And she can't stop calling his cell phone to hear her son on his voicemail.
There are still questions about what happened that day Jason was struck. The Fort Lee Police Department has declined to release information about the accident, saying its investigation is ongoing. No charges have been filed. Several attempts by ESPN to contact the man reportedly driving the car were unsuccessful.
"We don't know any more now than we did the day it happened," Emmitt says. "And that's as bad as any part of this thing, simply not knowing."
The pain might never to go away. The scars might never heal. Losing a child is something no parent should have to endure. But now, Emmitt and Charlotte can't help but remember their son walking into that kitchen, flipping his license onto the table and smiling about being an organ donor.
They can't help but think about David Erving, who, for the first time in 27 years, isn't battling the pitfalls of diabetes. They can't help but think about Ronald Griffin, standing and smiling at the reunion, sharing stories about how he now talks to their son. They can't forget the smile of Antwan Hunter and the loving innocence of Dennis Korzelius' three kids.
Because of Jason's decision, five children have their fathers back. Four mothers have their sons back. As many as 75 others benefited from tissue donation -- such as a new cornea or a new ACL. But just as importantly, two parents from North Carolina have started to find peace with the tragedy that shook their world six months ago. After the experiences they shared on their return visit to New Jersey, Emmitt and Charlotte were inspired to undergo counseling. They've also decided to become organ donors.
Jason's gifts just keep coming. The boy loved living so much that he's still doing it in death.
"Forget the fact that Jason was my son," Emmitt says. "Every time I turn around, I learn more and more about the effect he had on this world. And as time goes by, I realize how lucky I was to have even known such a man."