In March, Lional Dalton’s wife was setting up a Wall of Fame at their Atlanta home to showcase his days of lining up at defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and playing a key role in one of the most physically dominating defenses in NFL history.
Sorting through all of the old pictures, Dalton came across a plaque thanking him for filming a public service announcement for the Living Legacy Foundation in Maryland, a nonprofit organization that facilitates organ donation and transplantation.
“It’s almost like God got a crazy sense of humor,” Dalton said. “What’s the odds of that?”
More than 20 years after publicly promoting the need for organ donation, Dalton is one of the 110,000 people in the United States who is in need of a life-saving transplant. Dalton, 46, has been battling Stage 4 kidney disease for the past 17 months, going to dialysis for five hours a day, three days a week, while understanding his future is uncertain.
The typical wait time for a kidney from the national deceased-donor waiting list is five years. An average of 17 people die per day waiting for a transplant.
“Waiting for a kidney is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Dalton said. “I used to fight for my team on the field, but now I am fighting for my life.”
Dalton’s fortune changed two months ago when he discovered that plaque and a phone number on the back of it, a turn of events that caused his wife to get chills. “It was like that ‘a-ha’ moment,” said Tiffany Dalton, who has been married to Lional for eight years.
Dalton reached out to the Living Legacy Foundation, which soon got him an appearance on “Good Morning America” to explain the need to donate organs and to share his story. That four-minute interview stirred some people from the Baltimore area to call and offer help.
One woman intended to donate her kidney to her mother, but her mother passed away before the transplant. So she wants to give her kidney to Dalton in the name of her mother. The potential donor, who could not be reached for an interview, is undergoing tests to see if she is a match.
A kidney from a living donor can last 15-20 years. If successful, the affable Super Bowl champion nicknamed “Jelly Roll” can resume traveling the world with his wife and their two daughters.
“God willing, this lady comes through for me,” Dalton said. “I could have a kidney by the end of the year. That would be amazing.”
‘A big bombshell’
In a matter of hours, Dalton went from a relaxing start to 2020, to thinking his life was over.
Dalton hosted a New Year’s Eve party with friends, where he laughed and played games before going to bed. Around 6 a.m., he started experiencing shortness of breath and went alone to a nearby fire station, which was the closest emergency medical service.
With soaring blood pressure, Dalton was rushed to the hospital. His wife Tiffany woke to several missed calls because Dalton didn’t want to bother her initially, and she bolted out of the house to join him.
Dalton, who hadn’t felt sick before this, was informed by the doctor that his kidneys were functioning at 20%. Dalton’s first thought was to tell his wife to get all of his affairs in order because he didn’t know how long he was going to live. He started to cry, and Tiffany stepped out of the room to do the same.
“[The doctor] just dropped a big bombshell on us, and it was super surprising,” Tiffany said. “All of the emotions go down. It was a lot to process at first.”
Football’s impact on Dalton’s health
Dalton believes his kidney disease is an aftereffect of playing in the NFL. An undrafted defender out of Eastern Michigan, Dalton did whatever it took to make it in the league and stay there for nine seasons. He bounced around five teams, and he found out running around while weighing more than 300 pounds can inflict a significant toll on both knees.
For his last two years in Kansas City and Houston, Dalton estimated he downed four to five pills of anti-inflammatory medication every Wednesday and Thursday, the two most physical practices of the week. For his last three seasons, he acknowledged taking a pain-killing shot the day before games.
According to Dalton, an NFL team doctor told him that he had protein in his urine but didn’t explain this was a sign of kidney issues. Dalton thought he needed to stop eating red meat.
“They give a pill for everything,” Dalton said. “What happened in January  was an accumulation of all the Motrin and anti-inflammatory medication. All that stuff wears on the kidneys. If I would have known in 2005 about my issues, I would have stopped taking all those pills when I was playing. But I didn’t know. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in right now searching for a donor.”
It’s been estimated that 3% to 5% of all late-stage kidney failure patients in this country are due to prolonged and high use of anti-inflammatory medication, according to the Living Legacy Foundation.
Dropping 118 pounds
Dalton sat atop the football world in 2000, though you wouldn’t believe it by how his Super Bowl ring slips off his finger.
He was a valuable backup to interior linemen Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa on the Ravens’ defense that allowed the fewest points in a 16-game season and spearheaded Baltimore to a 34-7 triumph over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Teammates remember Dalton for how he stuffed the run, how much he ate and how he exercised his bulldog Biggie on the treadmill.
At that time, Dalton had the second-largest Super Bowl ring ever made, behind the Chicago Bears’ William “the Refrigerator” Perry. Dalton’s ring size was 16.
But these days, everything is smaller with Dalton.
“I tell people to just call me Jelly,” he said. “The rolls are all gone.”
After learning he has end-stage renal disease, Dalton read about how lowering your food consumption slowed down the deterioration of the kidneys in rats and mice. He immediately started fasting and switched to a 90% plant-based diet.
For breakfast, he might have a smoothie and some fruit. His favorite is almond milk with cinnamon and nutmeg along with a banana.
His bigger meals are between noon and 4 p.m. He eats falafel, rice, pita and hummus. His wife has learned how to batter cauliflower to make it taste like chicken.
“A player rep in Atlanta told me: It’s like the Super Bowl for your life,” Dalton said. “What you eat is how you feel.”
At his heaviest, the 6-foot-1 Dalton was 360 pounds. The day before a game, he once ate nearly two slabs of ribs, a pint of baked beans and some macaroni and cheese.
Now, he’s down to 242 pounds — a loss of 118 pounds. This is the lightest he’s been since middle school.
His waist line went from a size 48 to 38. His weight loss has been so dramatic that he’s no longer on blood pressure medicine. Dalton had been taking four pills a day for blood pressure, which had been further damaging his kidneys.
“I gave him a hug,” Tiffany said, “and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I have a new husband.”
Mornings became confusing for Lional and Tiffany’s two daughters, six-year-old Skye and two-year-old Sade.
“Where’s Daddy?” they asked.
Dalton had been taking his girls to school every morning and picking them up. But his schedule drastically changed. Dialysis treatment goes from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
During his 4 1/2 hours a day there, Dalton has written two books. His first was on his experiences and seeing different cultures: 19 countries in Africa along with Israel, Dubai and China. His other is a nearly finished ABC book that chronicles Skye’s travels, with pictures of her with different animals all around the world.
“Every day he encourages me and motivates me to be better, to be stronger, to not complain,” Tiffany said. “The things I’m going through is nothing compared to him. He definitely gives us strength.”
The hope for Dalton and the Living Legacy Foundation is he can inspire others too. Dalton wants to remove the stigma and fear surrounding organ donation. He explains how many lives in the community can be saved through organ, eye and tissue donation.
It’s the same message he was spreading in 1999, when he filmed his PSA.
Charlie Alexander, the CEO of the Living Legacy Foundation, remembers taking a picture with Dalton back then and thinking it’s great that Dalton is giving his time to a cause that he’ll never need.
“What it boils down to is this can happen to anyone,” Alexander said. “Nothing is guaranteed. We all need to be aware of what an impact we can make on people’s lives we may never know.”
How much of an impact can Dalton’s story make?
“People are looking to ‘Who can I trust right now on TV or online or in my community?’,” Alexander said. “You see a guy like Lional standing up in front of the room 20 years ago, when he didn’t have a proverbial horse in the race. Now, you’re seeing him standing there again today saying, ‘I hope you took my message seriously 20 years ago because my life depends on it.’”