God did this. Every step they had taken, every slur they'd endured, every mistake and happiness they'd known had built to here and now. All for a reason. All for some plan. God had brought them to Stillwater, Okla. God had soured her husband's kidneys, shriveling them to pale bundles of scars. God had made her a nurse so she would have the words to persuade her husband of what to do, and now God had chosen this frigid November day to bring Linda Simmons to her empty bedroom and impel her to lie flat on the floor. Forehead resting on her flattened knuckles. Daylight beginning to go dim. Lord, I need to know an answer. Please let me know if this is what You want me to do.
God talked back. Linda heard this voice, inside her head but outside too, and it said, "Yes, give your husband one of your kidneys." The Holy Spirit told her to think of Isaiah 41:10, and as she began the final line—I will uphold thee with the righteous right hand—she felt enveloped in peace. All her life, Linda Simmons had been a believer, but never had her faith grabbed her so deeply: She tingled, she felt that right hand lift her and hold her up over the rug, next to the bed. "As if I'd been elevated off the floor," she says.
Maybe you don't believe this. Maybe you don't want to hear it. Oklahoma State football coach Bob Simmons doesn't care. He and his family have spent the last decade traveling farther and farther beyond the secular pale, chasing something you can't see. They take life's knocks in curious ways. In 1989, a year after West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, a man Simmons considers a "second father," led him to believe he was next in line for a coordinator's job and then gave it to another man, Simmons stood before a group of stunned coaches at a clinic and told how much he loved Don Nehlen; then he hugged Nehlen.
By this time Simmons was firmly ensconced as one of Bill McCartney's assistants at Colorado, where for the next five years his family would revel in Boulder's ultraliberal aura—even though much of that image was a lie. Their daughter, Lelanna, would come home from kindergarten wondering why kids called her names, spat on her because she was black. Their son Nathan tells how an attendant at a rec center refused him entry to play pickup basketball with some white friends, then called the police when he protested. Yet the Simmonses hold no grudge against Boulder or its cops or kids. "No, we had a great time," Linda says.
"Good family times," Bob says.
Last fall Simmons, 50, led Oklahoma State to its first winning season in 10 years, beat Oklahoma in Norman for the second time in his three seasons with the Cowboys and was named Big 12 Coach of the Year. More important, for those eager to tap into a revenge theme, Colorado, the school that passed him over for its coaching job three years ago when it hired wonderboy Rick Neuheisel, endured a humiliating season. But Simmons, handpicked by McCartney to be his successor, never hinted at feeling vindicated. Not when his squad became the first Cowboys team to beat Colorado since 1988, not when NCAA infractions forced the Buffaloes to forfeit their five wins. Not a word.
Yet even those accustomed to the family's casual iconoclasm were blind-sided on March 10 when news began leaking out of Oklahoma City that Bob and Linda had just gone under the knife together. Beyond the rarity of their surgery—only about 4% of kidney transplants come from living, non-blood-related donors—lay the odd fact that few people knew that Bob had been carrying around rapidly disintegrating kidneys. Oklahoma State athletic director Terry Don Phillips says that when a reporter approached him at the Final Four in San Antonio and asked him to confirm reports of Simmons's surgery, "I said, 'No way. I had a meeting with him Monday'—and this was Tuesday—'and we met for 45 minutes. He's healthier than I am!' It caught me completely by surprise."
Phillips wasn't alone. Back home in East Cleveland, Ohio, Simmons's parents, Fred and Annabelle, had heard nothing until friends called to say they'd read about the operation in a newspaper. The elder Simmonses had spent three days last December with their son at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, oblivious to the fact that his name sat on a national transplant-recipient list and that, any second, his beeper could sound off with news that a matching kidney had been found. "We thought he was going on vacation somewhere," says Fred of Bob's absence for the surgery. "It was shocking to us. We didn't even know he needed a kidney."
For nearly two years Bob and Linda had known Bob's kidneys were failing, but it wasn't until a week before the surgery that they told their three children he was getting a new kidney—and that their mother would be giving it to him. The oldest and youngest, 22-year-old Brandon and 15-year-old Lelanna, took die news calmly, but 21-year-old Nathan, the Cowboys' starting tailback, panicked. "It was like getting hit with a rock," he says. He couldn't escape the fear that something would go wrong, that his parents would soon be dead. In the ensuing days he kept praying, but the fear dogged him. He kept having nightmares with the same theme: His parents were gone.
Only Linda felt at ease. The plan was to make an eight-inch incision in her left side, remove her kidney and implant it in her husband. She had been a registered nurse for 25 years, knew the risks of major surgery, had heard all the horror stories about lives abruptly lost in an anesthetic haze. She understood that Bob hated putting her at risk. She could read the nervousness in her children's faces. But hadn't she felt that righteous right hand lift her four months before?