The parade of life

Using coffee, onion, oregano, cinnamon and Cream of Wheat, volunteer Lisa Rhodes works on the floragraph of Jovante Woods, who died in 2010 but lives on through organ donation. Rick Reilly

How can the murder of a referee in Arkansas bring joy in Pasadena?

How can something that moves at the speed of a funeral procession make hearts race?

How can a parade float with a clock going backward make you feel so good about the future?

This is how:

On the night of April 16, 2010, Arkansas State student Michael (Rudy) Gilmore, just home from working his two jobs, one at Walmart and one refereeing intramurals, was shot in the head in his apartment. Who murdered him is still a mystery.

Who'd want to kill Rudy?

"If you needed a dime, Rudy would give you the whole quarter," says his mother, Jerlene.

Rudy's 17-year-old sister, Kaneisha, was poleaxed with grief. Everybody loved Rudy, but none more than she. Rudy had promised to be her escort for homecoming court this football season.

But Rudy wasn't there anymore. He was all over America. He had checked the donor box on his driver's license, so his lungs went here, his kidneys there, and his pancreas somewhere else. His heart stayed close, though. It went to a man named Sammy Robinson, 44, in nearby Hughes, Ark., who'd been waiting for eight months.

"Rudy saved my life," Sammy says. "I told his mom, 'I know you lost a son. But I want you to know you've gained another.'"

When Kaneisha met Sammy, she was poleaxed again. Sammy was nearly a doppelganger of her brother. Which gave Kaneisha an idea. "Could Mr. Sammy take Rudy's place at homecoming?" she asked her mother.

Robinson cried, bought a brand-new white suit for the occasion, showed up on the field that night and said, "I just know you're going to get homecoming queen."

And she did.

This coming Monday morning, Jerlene and Kaneisha will be in Pasadena when the rolling Kleenex machine known as the Donate Life float goes by in the 123rd Rose Parade.

It will have Rudy's floragraph on its side, along with those of 71 others who helped others live even as they died. Twenty-eight living persons will ride on top, grateful for those gifts.

In the NFL season of 1988, no rookie made prettier football music than Elbert (Ickey) Woods, the Cincinnati Bengals running back who rushed for more than 1,000 yards, popularized the Ickey Shuffle and led the Bengals to the Super Bowl.

What people didn't know about Woods was that he had asthma. So it was no surprise his 16-year-old football star son, Jovante, had it, too. And it was no surprise on Aug. 11, 2010, that Jovante had an attack when he got home after football practice. What was a surprise was that his inhaler was out of medicine.

Jovante gasped for his little brother to run down the street to a teammate's house and borrow his inhaler. But by the time his brother got back, Jovante was brain dead. That's when Ickey got one more surprise. Jovante, a 3.8 GPA student, had checked the donor box on his brand-new driver's license.

"It bothered me a little at first," says Ickey, now 45 and the coach of a women's pro team in Cincinnati. "They just came at me like, 'We're gonna take his organs.' But once they explained it all, I realized it's exactly what he wanted."

Jovante's organs saved four lives, including that of a 47-year-old heart recipient in Michigan. Dozens more tissue, bone and ligament grafts made lives better for other people, too, including a man who now sees with Jovante's cornea.

This Monday, Ickey will be in the crowd in Pasadena as he watches his son go by. But he's already seen the floragraph. The Donate Life people (DonateLifeFloat.org) send out the floragraphs to parents to let them add one finishing touch. Ickey helped add the eyebrows.

Of Jan. 2, Ickey says, "It'll probably bring a few tears as it goes by. I'll be elated and proud and sad, too, I guess. Everything."

The clock that runs backward on the front of the float will remind him of his fondest wish: That time could reverse itself long enough for him to spend one more day with his son.

And for the recipients? It reminds them of time they feared they'd never get.

It's a lot for a Monday morning.

The Donate Life float feels like both a funeral and a christening, like heartache and heartsong.

It will represent the best of us: the pro fighter Paco Rodriguez, who died in a title bout and whose organs live in five others now; the snowboarding champion Dylan Peters, who was inspired to be a donor when he met Olympic snowboarder and liver recipient Chris Klug; and the Air Force Academy head football manager, suicide victim Marc Henning, whose body was harvested for dozens of tissue grafts, including one to his own mother.

It's a downer and an upper and a breath-taker all in one. It's 100 feet of flower- and cinnamon- and split-pea-covered emotion. But it's helping.

There were 65 million registered donors in the U.S. in 2006. Now there are 102 million. That's still only 42 percent of 18-and-over Americans, but people are starting to get it: Death can mean life.

It's like what Rudy's mom, Jerlene, does every time she sees Sammy Robinson.

She'll tap his big chest and say, "Rudy treating you all right in there?"

And Sammy will say, "Just fine, ma'am!"

And she'll say, "That's Rudy. He won't let nothin' happen to you."

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

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