Ericka Downey was sitting on the closet floor of her home near Tulsa, Oklahoma in December when she felt a tug.
The pull came from an interesting place: A 58-year old Texas man she had never met. More specifically, his kidney.
Taking a break from cleaning her closet, Downey had seen on social media that former Kentucky, Texas A&M and Texas Tech basketball coach Billy Gillispie was in desperate need of a kidney and she wanted to help. Instead of scrolling past, she felt compelled to act.
A voice in her mind told her, “You need to do something.”
So, she did.
Knowing that Gillispie needed a kidney soon —“ASAP,” he had told the Dallas Morning News — Downey thought and prayed on the subject for a day, then decided to tell her husband.
Mark Downey, the head basketball coach of Division II Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, tangentially knew the former Killeen Ellision High School coach over their years in coaching circles.
“I walked into the living room where my husband was watching TV and just stood there and said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I feel like I need to try to donate (my kidney) for coach Gillispie,” Downey recalled. “He laughed and we laughed and he said, ‘You are crazy,’ and we said, ‘We already knew that.’”
Ericka Downey then filled out an online questionnaire through the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to see if she might be a match. Simultaneously, she began a Twitter campaign to #FindBCGadonor.
Downey tweeted seven times in December and January, each time encouraging her followers to fill out the Mayo’s online questionnaire and select Gillispie as the known donor.
However, her movement, on behalf of a stranger, received little social media attention.
“It was a struggle then to find people to retweet the story and get the word out,” she said.
But unbeknownst to the public and to Gillispie, Downey continued the match process, sending the Mayo Clinic a blood sample. Her type, O, is a universal donor, making her a more likely candidate than many to be a match.
In mid-February, the Mayo Clinic informed Downey that she was a match. When she posted this Monday evening that she was volunteering herself as a donor, the tweet received so much attention that her husband suggested turning her phone off from the constant notifications.
“When I ask myself would I give to anyone, just Joe Blow off the street, I believe that is true,” she said. “But because of our connection with college athletics and college basketball itself, there’s that emotional piece to it, you can’t deny that, there is an emotional tie to college basketball.”
Downey said that she isn’t naturally a giving person, so she makes efforts to be kind and charitable. Much of this decision, and her life, is influenced by her spirituality and morals that stem from her relationship with God.
“At the end of the day, I want to help someone and that happens to be coach Gillispie,” she said.
Gillispie, who coached at UTEP and Kentucky in addition to his stints at Texas A&M (2004-07) and Texas Tech (2011-12), has seen his reputation marred throughout his career with run-ins with the law, especially those related to alcohol.
But Downey is quick to shoot down those who question Gillispie and whether he deserves her kidney.
“I think we all have shortcomings. I don’t know him, personally,” she said, adding: “Does anyone know him that close now to know that he hasn’t changed his drinking habits? I don’t know. But it never crossed my mind that I should only give if he’s going to receive it in such manner. It’s really the intent behind it, right? So, I’m giving because I feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
Gillispie has battled health issues over the last several years. In 2012, he resigned Texas Tech amidst player mistreatment allegations, citing health concerns. In 2015, he began serving as the coach and athletic director of Ranger College but abruptly retired in December 2016, once again citing health issues, before returning this season. But he took a leave of absence in December upon learning that he’d had a heart attack and was in desperate need of a kidney transplant.
Downey started the kidney crusade without any contact from Gillispie, but he finally heard about her efforts in January. Although the two have never met, they have exchanged texts.
“He’s been incredibly thankful. He has been nothing but gracious and humble throughout the entire process,” Downey said. “And I’ve not talked to him a lot, but the few times that I have, he is just blown away by someone else’s kindness. And that’s really what it’s about for me. It’s so rewarding just to hear that, in itself.”
Downey, 33, is a rep for a medical optics supply company. She’ll spend March 26 and 27 at the Mayo Clinic to discover if she’s healthy enough for the procedure. Should the tests go well, the surgery would likely take place a month or two later. Downey indicated May might be the best time for it, but she has yet to discuss scheduling with Gillispie.
But Downey cautions that it’s not guaranteed hers will be the answer. She’s now campaigning for a backup plan.
“If something were to fall through during my health exam and I couldn’t move forward, the real objective is to have a Plan B,” she said. “And at this point, no one has been identified as a Plan B.”