Chad Watkins and Rebecca Colantuno
Transplant

Would You Get a Football Rival’s Tattoo in Payment for a Kidney?

By on 10/17/2022

It all started with a taunt.

When Rebecca Colantuno walked into a gym one day in 2004, wearing an Auburn University T-shirt, the gym owner couldn’t help but remark: “Why are you wearing that silly T-shirt?”

Colantuno lives and breathes allegiance to Auburn, her alma mater.

Gym owner Chad Watkins is a lifetime fan, too – of the University of Alabama, Auburn’s archrival.

The football teams, which compete every year in the Iron Bowl, have one of the most heated college rivalries in the country. It’s an epic feud that’s been going on since 1893. Watkins didn’t attend Alabama, but friends and family members did, and he’s fiercely loyal.

So when Watkins saw Colantuno’s Auburn T-shirt, he couldn’t let it pass without comment.

From Taunts to Friendship to a Vital Gift

What followed between Colantuno and Watkins was a lighthearted exchange of wisecracks about Auburn vs. Alabama that went on every time they saw each other at the gym at the Montgomery County Courthouse, where Colantuno works.

What followed was 18 years of friendship, of getting to know each other’s families, and, of course, watching the Iron Bowl together.

What also followed was an outcome that was unforeseeable the day they met. On July 20, 2022, Colantuno donated her kidney to Chad, saving him from the grueling regimen of dialysis and potentially saving his life. The transplant took place at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.

And, yes, the banter about Auburn vs. Alabama continued in the hospital.

“They were so funny,” says Allison Ford, manager of Einstein’s kidney transplant program. “We called her War Eagle.”

War Eagle is the Auburn University motto and battle cry. Colantuno has “eagle” tattooed on her wrist, and a girlfriend has a tattoo that says “war.”

He’d Do Anything for Her – Almost

And therein lies the catch for Watkins. In return for her kidney, Colantuno wants Watkins to also get a tattoo – specifically, an Auburn University tattoo; she’ll get a matching one.

“Chad has Auburn blood in him, now, with my kidney,” Colantuno says, “so he has to have an Auburn tattoo.”

It goes without saying that Watkins is eternally grateful to Colantuno and would do anything for her. But an Auburn tattoo? Not a chance.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to put that on me,’” Watkins says. He’s trying to persuade Colantuno to agree to a less explicit tattoo, say, a portrait of a heralded Auburn alumnus, such as Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson or Frank Thomas.

Negotiations are continuing.

Beyond their epic college rivalry, Colantuno and Watkins have much in common. Both have four children to whom they’re devoted. They are exercise fanatics. Both are power weightlifters, and Colantuno is a runner who recently ran in the Chicago Marathon.

Of course, Watkins gave up his fitness regimen as he got sicker from kidney disease. Colantuno knew that he was ill, but she didn’t realize his condition had reached the point of needing a kidney until she read about it on social media last fall.

Watkins had kept it quiet. “The only people who knew were literally my immediate family and my cousins,” Watkins says. “I didn’t want a pity party. I didn’t want anybody treating me like I’m terminal.”

A Search, and a Match

Watkins finally agreed to post his need for a transplant when his health declined precipitously. Becca immediately volunteered to be tested to see if she was a match.

“Becca called me instantly,” Watkins says. “That’s Becca. She’s so kind-hearted.”

“I thought if this works, awesome,” Colantuno says. “It’s not putting me in harm’s way, and a family gets a dad who can spend his life with them.”

Colantuno underwent comprehensive testing at Einstein to determine her eligibility to donate her kidney. She was in her car, returning from dropping off her daughter at the airport, when she got the call that she was a match.

“I was just so happy and honored, and I thought, this could be so good for him,” she says. “I reached out and said, ‘Dude, it’s on!’”

For Watkins, the news was thrilling – and upsetting. “It was emotional for me,” he says. “I know her husband, I know her children. If something was to happen to her, I’d feel horrible.”

But Colantuno put it simply: “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Her experience of adapting to life with a child on the autism spectrum has made her profoundly philosophical. “If something goes wrong, it’s just a detour,” she says. “You just change plans and move forward.”

The surgery took place on July 20. Colantuno feels great and is fully recovered, back to work, back to training for the marathon. She and Watkins are in touch almost every day.

Watkins had a few post-surgical complications, but says “everything’s been steadily progressing. The momentum is fast. I feel great.”

Except, of course, for the looming matter of the Auburn tattoo.

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