Steve and Heather Winfree were guests at the Braves' game on Feb. 27 at Disney Wide World of Sports (via @TheWinfrees Twitter)

After life-saving transplant, Tennessee couple visits Braves

Steve Winfree was diagnosed with kidney failure when he was 18 years old. He had committed to Maryville College to play basketball. The preseason physical exam revealed his kidneys were functioning poorly, ending his basketball career and beginning a 14-year battle with kidney disease.

He met Heather as a grad student in 2011, and eventually they married. 

Steve worked as an intern at the Disney Wide World of Sports, helping with AAU events, Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp and Braves spring training. 

He worked in marketing and sales for the Orlando Magic out of college, but his health forced him to return to Tennessee. 

That ended what he recalls as one of the best years of his life.

He told Heather not long after they met that eventually he would need a kidney translate.

Since Steve shared his battle, Heather was determined to save his life. Despite the unlikelihood of having a matching kidney, she never had a doubt she would fit.

“I decided when we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I’m going to save this man,” she said.

She saw how it derailed Steve’s life. Despite living as close as in Knoxville, they couldn’t even go to a Braves game because of the effects from exposure to heat. In March 2017, Steve, then on dialysis, was getting worse.

He and Heather were tested at Vanderbilt, with his life on the line. Heather learned they were indeed a match, but she withheld.

Heather sent Steve a text with exclamation points, which he said is a rarity. She asked Steve to get the MVP haircut at Sports Clips, usually reserved as a Christmas gift, before he came home. 

“I think my wife’s giving me a kidney tonight,” Steve recalled telling the cosmetologist. “I think she’s telling me she’s saving my life tonight.”

When he arrived, they sat at the porch swing.

Steve was an avid baseball-card collector. But the pack Heather handed him had been opened, another odd rarity. Then she started filming him.

As he was flipping through the cards, an unusual one caught his eye: a card of himself.

“You’re going to be a rookie recipient at Vanderbilt,” he remembers it saying. “And I started bawling my eyes out. Because I knew what that meant.”

The rarity peaked with Steve’s discovery. The odds of having a matching kidney with a non-relative are 1-in-150,000, they said.

“By far the best card I’ve ever pulled,” he said. 

Heather uploaded the video on Facebook. They woke up the next morning with over 1,000 notifications, and “Good Morning America” called a day later. An ESPN interview followed as their story went viral.

Major League Baseball reached out and invited them to a Braves game two weeks before Steve’s transplant on Sept. 28, exactly five months from Wednesday.

They were guests at Tuesday’s spring training game against the Pirates at Disney Wide World of Sports, where Steve relived the memories of one of the best years of his life.

They met Bobby Cox, Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson and others. 

“This is a dream come true,” Steve said, as Heather proudly held up the bat Freeman gave her after batting practice. “This is a great place. It’s a great sports place.”

Steve said he’s now at 80 percent and enjoying life again. He and Heather want their story to serve as a lesson.

“The biggest thing we hope, from our story, is that people can see what can happen to someone’s life if you choose to donate,” he said. “Because I went from being a happy and go-lucky guy, an athlete, to depressed. She brought life back to me when she made that decision.”