It’s not every day that the president of your favorite NFL team gives you a call, especially when that team is days from appearing in the biggest game of the season.
But that was the reality for Billy Welsh and John Gladwell, two U.S. Marine Corps veterans whose story of friendship and sacrifice moved Philadelphia Eagles president Don Smolenski to extend the men an offer that was almost unbelievable — an expenses-paid trip to witness their teams clash in Super Bowl LVII.
Smolenski, calling from Phoenix on Monday, said it was “destined” that Welsh, 39, and Gladwell, 44, will get to see the showdown live after he heard that Gladwell, a supporter of the Chiefs and resident of Kansas City, donated a kidney to Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Welsh, an ardent Eagles fan.
Welsh and Gladwell met at a military base in the early 2000s while serving in the Marine Corps, and initially butted heads. They reconnected nearly 20 years later, when Welsh was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease and asked on social media if anyone was willing to become a donor.
Gladwell responded, found he was a 99% match and flew to Philly for the procedure at Jefferson’s Nicoletti Transplant Center. The two remain pals to this day.
Smolenski said the story symbolizes the unifying aspects of the Marine Corps and the NFL, and after hearing it, he called up his old friend and president of the Chiefs, Mark Donovan.
“I told him what I was thinking, and he was absolutely on board,” said Smolenski, who befriended Donovan while he was an executive with the Eagles from 2003-09.
On Sunday around 6 p.m., both presidents delivered the news to Welsh and Gladwell on a video call — they would be flown to Arizona on Friday, put up in hotel rooms, and seated next to each other at one of the most-watched sporting events in the world.
“The opportunity to bring these two guys together, their two teams playing on the biggest stage in sports, it’s very, very humbling and gratifying,” Smolenski said.
To add to the surprise, neither Marine was told the other would be on the call.
“I was speechless,” Welsh said Monday. “I didn’t know what to say. … I’m at a loss for words.”
Gladwell said he was at his home in Kansas City on Sunday morning when he got a call from a number he thought was spam. Luckily he picked up, as it was from a representative from the Super Bowl Committee.
“They’re like, ‘You’re going to the Super Bowl,’” Gladwell said, remembering the shock. “I’m like, ‘I am?’”
Later that night, Gladwell said, the presidents told him and Welsh that “unfortunately, you two are going to be sitting next to each other at the Super Bowl. So (Gladwell) has to sit right next to an Eagles fan.”
Smolenski said Welsh and Gladwell will be flown to Phoenix from Philadelphia and Kansas City on team-chartered planes Friday. The men will return Monday after the game.
“It’ll definitely be great,” Gladwell said.
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