A Team We Can All Cheer for: THE DONATE LIFE TEAM

The Fan of the Year presentation, with (l-r) Bill, Jim and T.J. Watts, prior a regular season game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Philadelphia, PA. (Karl Roser / Pittsburgh Steelers)

A lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, Brother Bill Soloway may bleed green, but he admits his heart is pure gold … and black.

That’s because it once belonged to an avid Steelers fan.

Approximately nine years ago, Bill, a member of Frankford Brown Lodge No. 751, Philadelphia, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart defect that took the lives of his brother and his mother. The disease put him into congestive heart failure and now threatened his life, as well.

As the primary caregiver for his 85-year-old father, Brother John Soloway, P.M., Bill feared what would happen if his life was cut short like his loved ones’.

With few options, Bill met with doctors and experts at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia about the potential of obtaining a heart transplant. Knowing the odds were stacked against him, it was his last hope.

“Twenty people die every day waiting for a life-saving organ transplant,” Bill said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic.”

An avid long-distance cyclist, Bill’s quality of life deteriorated drastically.

“I just kind of existed,” he recalled. “I was limited in what I could do. Just to walk five steps was a major undertaking … I would get winded.”

Faced with the reality of his situation, Bill opted to make the most of the time he had with his father, having lost his mother just two years prior. Despite their health struggles, father and son re-traced the honeymoon trip Bill’s parents took decades prior. They watched the Phillies’ spring training in Clearwater, Florida; ate at their favorite restaurants; rode his mother’s favorite ride at Disney World, ‘It’s a Small World”; and visited other favorite sites like the mermaid lagoon in Weeki Wachee Springs.

In June 2015, Bill received a call from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania that they had a heart for him.

“It’s surreal when you get the news,” Bill said. Yet he knew while he was being blessed with a heart, the donor’s family was devastated to have lost their loved one.

After the transplant, Bill saw instant improvement. He felt immensely better and could ride long distances again. “I never dreamt that I would ever be riding my bike again,” Bill said. “It’s my therapy, my stress relief. When I’ve had a rough day, I take it out on the pedals.”

He was determined to tell his donor’s family how grateful he was to receive the life-saving heart and reclaim his life. Five months after his transplant surgery and recovery, Bill embarked on the required process. He wrote a letter, excluding any personal details, and sent it to the donor’s family through the Gift of Life Donor Program.

Some families read the letter immediately, some wait and some never open it. Jim Zimmerman opened Bill’s letter immediately and responded within a few weeks. Jim is the father of Bill’s donor, James Zimmerman Jr., a 38-year-old retired Marine and father. James had become an organ donor after Jim told him he was listed as one. That decision saved Bill’s life when James died unexpectedly in Philadelphia.

After several communications, Bill and Jim agreed to share their contact information and sign a waiver so they could communicate directly. After speaking on the phone, the men formed an immediate bond.

Since Jim lives in Mount Pleasant (near Pittsburgh) and Bill in Yardley (near Philadelphia), the two agreed to meet halfway at an organ donation “Celebration of Life” at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, four years ago.

“Bill is a real good man,” Jim said. “I felt so blessed meeting him. It was tragic after my son passed away. I don’t have much family. I feel like he is family. He reminds me so much of my son. My son was a very good-hearted person. He was kind and always helping people. Bill honors my son so much. He is a really good guy.”

According to Bill, only about 20% of organ donor families communicate with the recipients; less than 5% meet in person.
Bill and Jim spoke often of their love for their hometown sports teams, but it was when they met in person that Bill saw how passionate Jim was about the Steelers.

“When I first met Jim, he had a Steelers Ben Roethlisberger shirt on,” Bill said.

Each year after his transplant recovery until his father passed in 2020, Bill and John retraced their steps of that Florida vacation. One year, as they overlooked the ballpark, Bill thought how blessed he was for his new lease on life and how his donor’s father might enjoy a similar opportunity.

He shared their story with the Pirates, and they invited Bill and Jim to join the team for batting practice prior to a game. After the fourth inning, a message on the scoreboard from Bill thanked James for the gift of life. “Jim was touched by that,” Bill said.

After several seasons of Jim wearing Steelers’ gear to the Pirates’ games they attended together, last year, Bill finally asked Jim if he’d ever been to a football game. Jim replied that growing up, he’d never had the opportunity to go to a Steelers game with his father, so he was determined to take James. They had gone to Pirates games and always talked about seeing the Steelers, but that dream never materialized. After high school, James had joined the Marine Corps and was stationed in Hawaii; then, he served overseas.

“I looked Jim in the eye and said, ‘James is going to take you to a Steelers game.’ He looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I told him, ‘I am going to take you to a Steelers game, with James’ heart in me.’”

True to his promise, Bill took Jim to see the Steelers play the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium in the 2022 home opener. Bill also purchased a stadium tour, wanting to give Jim the full fan experience. Knowing they were coming, R.W. Grand Master Jeff Wonderling, and his wife, Sharon, who are season ticket holders, invited them to tailgate with them beforehand. Upon hearing their story, one of the Steelers’ Public Relations staff provided Jim and Bill with goody bags and upgraded their seats from the 400 section to the ADA seating in the end zone, making it easier for Jim to navigate with his mobility scooter.

“It was something out of this world,” Jim said. “Just to be there with him, be in that stadium. It meant a lot to me. It was so exciting. I was so happy. I thought it was the only game I would ever go to.”

Bill was even happier to provide the experience.

“We were right down there near the field,” Bill said. “Jim was like a little kid. He had his Terrible Towel, his Steelers’ shirt and hat … Here I am, a lifelong Philly sports fan, avid Eagles fan, and now I’m taking Jim to Pirates’ and Steelers’ games.”

Soon after, Bill completed the application process to nominate Jim to be the Steelers NFL Ultimate Fan of the Year, which required writing several essays. Their story touched many hearts, and Jim was selected.

The Steelers invited them to watch their game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in October, reserving them a room in the same hotel where the Steelers players were staying in downtown Philadelphia. Bill helped coordinate the surprise.

“We talked about it being a rarity for both of our teams to play,” Bill said. “I explained to Jim that I talked about our story, and the Steelers wanted to send us to the game. That people were so moved they wanted to do something special for us. The city was hopping, as the World Series was also going on. Jim was in heaven.”

The only time Jim had been to Philly was when James died, so he did not have good memories of the area. “But there are things he wanted to do and see, including getting a Philly cheese steak,” Bill said. “He was really excited.”

On the field before the game, Jim’s favorite player, linebacker T.J. Watt, presented him with a jersey and told him that he was selected as the Steelers 2022 Fan of the Year and one of 32 finalists for the NFL Fan of the Year contest.

“I almost cried,” said the 68-year-old machine shop retiree. “I never expected anything like this in my life. That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”

The Steelers then invited them to their last home game on Jan. 8 against the Cleveland Browns, where they got to lead the Pittsburgh fans in the ceremonial twirling of the Steelers’ Terrible Towels before the game. A video clip of their story played on the score board.

Jim’s title as Steelers Fan of the Year earned the duo a trip to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona, including airfare and hotel accommodations.

“We stayed with all the NFL Fans of the Year from all over,” Bill said. “You can imagine the rivalry, but we all hung out together and hit it off.”

On Feb. 9, they walked the red carpet to Symphony Hall for the NFL Honors event, where the Seattle Seahawks’ representative was announced as NFL Fan of the Year. “The Steelers’ organization texted us saying, ‘We want you to know how proud we are of you representing our organization’ and that Jim was the winner in their eyes,” Bill recalled.

Bill was a good sport; he had donned Steelers gear and twirled his towel for his friend, but that evening, he wore his Eagles socks underneath his Steelers’ suit.

“It was a fabulous experience – just the trip of a lifetime,” Bill said. “I never dreamt I’d be there, and to see the Eagles was even better.”

Although Bill bought Jim some Eagles attire to wear to the Super Bowl, he opted to remain in his Steelers Fan of the Year gear.

Bill has committed to sharing the rest of his life with James, having met multiple members of his family in addition to Jim. James’ name is on the bike Bill rides in races.

“Had it not been for James saying, ‘yes,’ to organ donation, I wouldn’t be here today,” Bill said. “Every time I see Jim, I give him a big hug, because then his son’s heart is next to his heart.”

“My son would’ve wanted it this way,” Jim said of his friendship with Bill.

Bill and Jim are on the same team when it comes to the passion that brought them together. Bill now serves as the Executive Director of the Masonic Blood+Organ Donor Program, encouraging everyone to give the precious gifts of blood and organ donation. And while Jim did not win NFL Fan of the Year, he’s far from disappointed. More than anything, he wishes for people to become organ donors.

“When it comes to life, it’s not about which team you root for, but rather being on the Donate Life Team,” Bill said. Jim agrees wholeheartedly.

Bill’s and Jim’s plans to celebrate Donate Life Month in April included attending their annual Pirates game together and the Face of America Ride, benefiting non-profit World T.E.A.M. Bill honors James annually during this two-day, 106-mile event through Maryland to Gettysburg’s historic Civil War battlefields, and his fundraising proceeds benefit injured servicemen and women. Jim will be greeting cyclists at the finish line.

For more information on how you can become an organ donor, visit Organ Donation – Masonic Blood + Organ Donor Program.

Sources: steelers.com/news/a-connection-like-no-other, audacy.com/kywnewsradio/local-sports/steelers-fan-saves-eagles-fan-organ-donation and nfl.com/honors/fan-of-the-year/

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