Coach's gift of life born of selflessness, faith

BY BRAD LOCKE
Daily Journal

OXFORD – By the time Bradley Roberson entered this world in 1978, the bridge was being built.

All Jenny Nelson saw at the time was an obstacle.

After giving birth to a daughter in 1977, Nelson was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary disorder for which there is no known cure or treatment. Only rigorous and energy-draining dialysis can stave off its approach.

The best option: a transplant.

It would be years before Nelson's health would be greatly affected. The cruel disease launches its attack whenever it pleases, its victim left to agonize over when. When the cysts decide to grow and take over, not much can be done.

For Nelson, the attack came in 2002. Her blood pressure rose, and she fought it off with an assortment of medications. But by February 2005, she was on the organ donor list – she expected a five-year wait – and the dialysis began that summer.

The chasm between Nelson and a healthy life seemed to grow wider.

A great work begun

Roberson grew up in Ripley and attended Mount View Baptist Church. At 17, he accepted Jesus as his savior, just in time to take on college life at Ole Miss.

In 1998, he and his girlfriend – now his wife, Nicole – began attending North Oxford Baptist Church, a 1,400-member congregation. Jenny Nelson and her husband, Frank, arrived there Easter of 2002, about the time Jenny took a bad turn, but they didn't immediately cross paths with the Robersons.

In 2005, the year Nelson's health went into a spiral, the Robersons officially joined the church. Bradley was now an assistant baseball coach at Oxford High School, Nicole a teacher.

The Robersons were searching for a Sunday School class the fall of '06, but nothing resonated with them. Then they tried a class taught by Steve Blackmon, a fellow baseball coach, even though they were by far the youngest couple there.

The Robersons and Nelsons were also in choir together. Their bond was quickened through a mutual relationship with the Blackmons.

“They welcomed us with open arms, probably a lot more so than other people in the church,” Bradley said. “When people like that welcome you, you're drawn to them.”

Though nobody could yet see it, the bridgework was coming along just fine.

The step of faith
Bradley and Nicole saw firsthand how Nelson's disease dragged her down.

She made it to church less and less often, until eventually she couldn't make it at all. All the while, Bradley was wondering what help he could possibly offer his new friends.

Jenny couldn't find a donor within her family. Her mother was too old, and she didn't want her daughter, Jen, to give up a future family – one kidney isn't enough to support a pregnancy.

One night during choir practice four months ago, Frank stood up and requested prayer for his wife, whose condition was worsening.

Nicole shot up out of her chair and asked Frank for Jenny's blood type. Disgust etched her face when he said, “B.” Nicole is Type A.

That's when it hit Bradley, who's now 29. That's when he could see a picture of a bridge in his mind. On the way home that night, he asked Nicole if she was really willing to give a kidney to Jenny Nelson.

“In a heartbeat,” she replied.

OK, Bradley thought, this is what God's wanting me to do.

He never had a moment's doubt or hesitation about what would be the biggest step of faith he'd ever take.

The cell phone was attached to Frank Nelson like, well, like a cyst. The transplant call could come at any time, and he had to be there to take it.

It was his home phone that rang this night. Bradley Roberson was on the other end offering his kidney to Jenny. Frank didn't know what to say, except to confirm that Bradley's Type O blood would make him a potential match.

Once an eavesdropping Jenny understood what was happening, she couldn't say anything. So she quickly sent an e-mail to the man who would give her new life.

“What do you say to the guy that saved your life?” Frank would later say.

Indeed, Jenny has a new life now. On Dec. 19, the surgery at Birmingham's UAB Hospital went off without a hitch. Roberson's extra-large kidney – due to his health-conscious lifestyle and athletic build – made itself right at home inside Nelson.

She didn't spend a minute in the Intensive Care Unit. She nicknamed her new organ BJ – for Bradley Junior.

Roberson's act has attracted notice, though that wasn't his intent. His good friend and assistant, Chris Baughman, wasn't shocked by Roberson's sacrifice.

“I was awestruck,” Baughman said, “but it didn't surprise me because of the type of guy he is and his faith. He constantly preaches to the kids: faith, faith in what you do, faith in why you do it.”

Nelson was home by Jan. 11, four days after Roberson started practice with the baseball team – he had become head coach before last season.

On the way to surgery, Jenny Nelson's body was swollen, her skin stretched taut across her face.

Now, she's healthy beyond description.

“It's hard to tell you how I feel, because it's been so long since I've felt this way,” she said with a laugh. “I felt bad all the time. I never felt good.”

The Nelsons are grandparents now. Jen gave birth to a son, Dean Nelson Lane, Jan. 5 in New York.

Jenny Nelson can see the bridge now, the one that's spanned generational, biological and spiritual barriers.

The Blackmons brought the Nelsons and Robersons together; Roberson's kidney gave Nelson new life; and the entire experience has brought each family closer to God.

“There's times in life when you need to help people. There's also times in life when you're going to need help,” Roberson said. “It all goes full circle.

“I believe that's one of the big things God tries to teach us all. When He says it's time to step out on faith and do what I ask you to do, then you need to do it.”

It's no easy step. But the step of the faithful, he learned, will find a foothold on a bridge that was there all along.

“I think it showed us all the power of that kind of giving spirit and heart,” said Gary Richardson, North Oxford's pastor, “and made us all a lot more open to being that kind of person.”

Contact Daily Journal assistant sports editor Brad Locke at (662) 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

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