Albert Haynesworth, once a dominating force along NFL defensive lines, felt powerless.
It was less than a decade after a football career that saw him reach two Pro Bowls with the Tennessee Titans, be named the 2008 Sporting News Defensive Player of the Year, and become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history for a time. Haynesworth was coughing uncontrollably, his oxygen levels were low and his stomach had swelled significantly. His kidneys were failing.
“I couldn’t breathe,” he told The Athletic recently. “I couldn’t lay down. I felt like I was drowning lying in a bed. I had to sit up in bed, tried to sleep that way. I couldn’t catch my breath. I drove myself to the hospital. My kidneys were shutting down.”
In July 2019, Haynesworth had turned 38 the previous month, and his doctor suggested he make a public plea for a kidney donor due to his previous NFL fame.
The 15th overall pick out of the University of Tennessee in the 2002 NFL Draft was reluctant because he thought many fans didn’t like him. His his infamous on-field incident that resulted in a suspension, and his failure to live up to his massive $100 million free-agent contract with Washington, had, in his mind, made him an outcast. Eventually, he agreed to the suggestion and posted about his situation on Instagram.
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To his surprise, according to The Athletic, more than 1,000 people called the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Center at Vanderbilt University to express interest.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” Haynesworth told The Athletic. “Like, I’m not hated. There are a lot of people who love you and appreciated what I did.”
One of the interested donors was Zach Penny, a physical therapist assistant who had served patients on dialysis. He read about Haynesworth’s predicament, applied to be a donor, and a year later was discovered to be a match.
Penny had a childhood similar to Hayneworth’s. Penny had grown up in Fouke, Arkansas, largely to a single father with a strong Christian faith who sought to pass that faith on to his children. “My job is in service to others,” Penny’s father, Wesley, told The Athletic. “I can’t think of any better way to support the love of Christ than to be in service of others.”
Meanwhile, Haynesworth was raised in Hartsville, South Carolina, by his mother, Linda. She too instilled a strong faith in her son.
Her mission as a South Carolina Department of Corrections officer, she says, is to “make people aware of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.”
Penny and Haynesworth — who also spent 11 days in an ICU in 2014 due to two brain aneurysms — tried to find a time to do the procedure. It was delayed late in 2020, then again as Haynesworth was hospitalized yet again with COVID-19.
Finally, surgery was scheduled for April 15, 2021. Penny was secure in his faith and in the decision God had led him to.
“It was just like a normal day for me, something I was meant to do,” he said. “I felt I was just doing something as kind as buying someone’s meal in a drive-through or opening a door.”
The surgery was successful. The two patients were able to meet each other and bonded over faith, family, gratitude and their love for SEC football. Haynesworth took to Instagram again, this time to express his appreciation. He made sure to use the hashtag “#GodisGood” and said, “This is one of the happiest days of my life next to the birth of my kids. We need more people in the world like Zach. I’m striving to be like him.”
He even called Penny his “living Angel.”
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Penny feels the same about his new friend.
“I’d give Albert my second kidney if it was allowed,” he told The Athletic. “He’s such a good guy. I think I’d do anything for him. And it’s likewise, he’d do the same for me.”
As she often does, Haynesworth’s mother, Linda, brought a fresh perspective to the ordeal.
“It made [Haynesworth] realize none of us have forever in this world, and while we are here, we need to prepare for where we are going to spend eternity,” she told The Athletic. “It made him realize more about what he should be doing and how he should be responding to certain things. It made him get more in touch with himself.”
Haynesworth went through a time in 2010, after the death of his brother in a motorcycle accident, that left him nearly hating God. That’s all beginning to change now.
“I’m a sinner, but I know God’s plan,” Haynesworth told The Athletic. “He puts me through things not to test my faith but to make me stronger.”
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