The Broncos can’t stop breaking Sicily’s heart. Which is funny, given how that heart now beats inside a 48-year-old man from Parker.
“(Broncos CEO) Greg Penner, he’s got a lot of decisions to make,” Tony Young told me last week. “And we’re all going to be watching him. I hope he knows how much more we (in Broncos Country) expect out of him than we expect out of (Rockies owner) Dick Monfort.”
From his Super Bowl 50 ball — signed by Von Miller, naturally — to his little Broncos drum kit, Tony’s an Orange & Blue lifer. Former Broncos defensive end Brison Manor, Young’s cousin, once had that great 1977 Orange Crush defense, the backbone of the franchise’s first AFC champs, autograph a team photo for Tony and his brother.
“It’s hard,” he offered with the kind of resigned, rueful laugh that’s become the soundtrack to a season. “I have to check my blood pressure pretty regularly. I’ve had to learn to de-stress in other ways.”
Which is why his favorite moment from this season, maybe the coolest Broncos story of this uncool autumn slog, is about the game he missed. About the time he watched arguably the high point in a season of lows — Denver’s 11-10 home victory over Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers, the eventual NFC West champions — with the woman who helped save his life.
“(That was the) best decision,” he said. “The Broncos won that game, but meeting my new Texas family was one of the most important things I will ever do.”
Tony rocks. No, really. He was a touring drummer for a while.
The man’s a walking Wikipedia on metal and death metal in particular. He attended six different Slayer concerts during the band’s farewell tour from spring 2018 through fall 2019.
“The final shows, in Los Angeles, were when I went into AFib (paroxysmal atrial fibrillation),” he recalled. “I left in an ambulance. And so Slayer is in my medical files.”
See, Tony was also born with a heart defect. He’s gone into cardiac arrest three times in the past 25 years. The first was at age 25. The most recent was when they were putting in the new heart — Sicily’s heart — on March 7, 2020.
Fortunately, the transplant took. Young received a new kidney two days later, just before the COVID-19 pandemic started to shut everything down.
He knew the organs were from the same donor, a 34-year-old woman, but that was about it. Organ donations are anonymous, with identities and origins vigorously protected on both ends of the pipeline. If you want to know more, you have to work for it.
Tony wanted more. So around Christmas 2020, he got the ball rolling by penning a letter to thank the donor’s family. He told them how grateful he was for a second chance at — well, everything, Broncos games included. He didn’t expect a response. Ordinarily, any attempt to reach out to a donor family, Young said, “just kind of goes into oblivion.”
Tony’s Hail Mary did, too. Until this past summer.
The letter eventually found its way to Robin Bates, who teaches third graders in Longview, Texas, about 50 miles from the Louisiana border.
Robin’s daughter Sicily was the 34-year-old in question. She remembers getting a letter passed over by her local donor organization from a Tony in Colorado, with pictures and a sweet message of thanks — that’s all she knew, as most of the personal information was redacted. She put it away.
But once the seed was planted in the back of her head, it never really left. Earlier this year, Bates found herself surfing online when she rabbit-holed her way into a photo gallery from an organ donation event. In one of the pictures, suddenly, she spotted a familiar face. It was that same Tony from Denver, holding a sign that read:
I SHINE A LIGHT FOR MY ANGEL’S DONATION
“It just struck me at that moment,” Robin said. “I had to know who he was.”
Tony was at an event at Washington Park this past July when Donor Alliance called to tell him that Sicily’s mother wanted to reach out.
“Which I never expected,” he recalled, choking back tears, “for a lot of reasons.”
Calls were made. Red tape got untangled.
“I hope we get to meet one day,” Robin told him.
“Oh, we’re gonna be on a plane,” Tony laughed.
And in late September, there he was, on her front lawn, gift box in hand, accompanied by his mother and brother. Another friend flew in not long after. They thanked the Dallas-based medical team who made the miracle possible, then headed to Longview.
“Talking to his mom, oh my gosh, she was the sweetest person ever,” Bates recalled. “She was so grateful and was such a warm-and-loving person. And right away, she just started calling me ‘sister.’ That really touched me.”
Tony and Robin hugged. Tightly. Just tight enough so that a mother could make out the beat of Sicily’s heart, back home, as it thumped away anxiously.
Young handed her a gift, wrapped in a small box. Inside was a customized teddy bear from Build-A-Bear, a brown, furry thank-you with a loving handshake.
Someone suggested to Robin she push the button on the bear’s right paw. A tiny, unseen speaker burst to life.
THUP! … THUP! … THUP!
“This is her heartbeat, isn’t it?” Robin said, eyes welling up.
It was. During a recent cardiogram, doctors had recorded a 10-second digital loop of Tony’s new heart; the Build-A-Bear folks took the clip and set it to play from inside the bear whenever the right paw got squeezed.
“There’s so much sentiment behind being able to give something that she can hold and listen to, that still has the heart of her daughter,” Tony said.
“I think it’s been incredibly healing for us both. She told me that this is one of the few things that help her make sense out of the tragic loss of her daughter. There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt that comes with being a recipient. You always wonder about your recipient’s family, because there’s so much you don’t know.
“She made me feel that I was indeed worthy of that gift.”
Sicily played the drums, too, a free spirit in every sense of the word. When one family conversation had turned to the subject of what to do with each other’s remains, it was Sicily, Robin recalled, who chose life.
“If there’s anything anybody can use, it’s not like I’m going to need it anymore,” she told her mother. “Then take the rest of me and attach it to fireworks and shoot it up at the sky.’”
She would die of a drug overdose, ending a sweet story too soon. But a promise was a promise, and so Robin kept her daughter on life support, days after her vital signs had stopped, until whatever drugs that were left in her system could pass out of the organs that had been promised. Tony would receive the heart and a kidney; the other kidney was also procured for donation.
As the pandemic had robbed Robin and her family of a proper funeral, “meeting Tony and his family,” she said softly, “was really the closure that we needed.”
At the same time Sicily’s heart closed a window, though, it opened a door. And in walked Tony, smiling in Orange & Blue, and this friendship no one saw coming two years ago.
“The fact that she can help him, to be with his family and … help him continue his life and improve his life?” Robin said. “It means everything to me.”
Mom says Sicily and Tony were soulmates who never met. Her daughter loved heavy metal, too. Especially Slipknot, a band of hard-core thrashers from Iowa with a sound that could peel paint off the side of a barn.
Late in the summer, after finally touching base with Robin, Tony made a point to cross some other post-pandemic items off his bucket list. He took a trip to Europe, bouncing from London to Omaha Beach. But the centerpiece of the junket was the Wacken Open Air Festival in Schlwesig-Holstein, Germany, a Woodstock for the metal crowd, head-banging in a field.
The headline act on the next-to-last night of the festival?
Slipknot. Of course.
“I was probably the only guy there in tears,” Tony said, “watching Slipknot play.”
As Robin’s family sat with Tony to watch the Broncos edge Little Shanny’s Niners, they made plans to visit him in Parker next summer, to take in the Front Range’s sunshine and dry mountain air for the first time. And to see Young’s other great love, the Broncos, up close for themselves.
“I always check in with Tony and ask how the Broncos are doing,” Bates said. “And every time he writes back, he always ends with ‘God bless’ and ‘Go Broncos.’”
She keeps up with Tony now, too. Young’s an ambassador for Donor Alliance and for organ donation in general. He even rode on the Donate Life float in last January’s Rose Parade in Pasadena, advocating at every turn.
“Which is actually pretty interesting,” Robin said, “considering he’s a very quiet person. I’m kind of shocked he’s so out there with this (cause), knowing now that he is such a private person — except about this. And about the Broncos.”
While she’s got Tony rooting for her Tennessee Volunteers from Parker, he’s got Robin following the Orange & Blue from down in Longview. Although after the past 16 weeks, she’s starting to wonder what the heck her daughter’s heart just signed up for.
“He is a die-hard fan,” Robin laughed. “He complains a lot.”
The bear, meanwhile, rests tenderly on her dresser. An early Christmas gift. A reminder. That no matter how deep the darkness, hope is almost always a heartbeat away.
For more information on organ donation, visit the Donor Alliance at www.donoralliance.org or visit Donate Life at donatelifecolorado.org