The Fight of Their Lives
— Longtime referee Joe DeMayo and his family lean on a supportive community as his two sons hope for new kidneys.
As a college basketball referee, Joe DeMayo has one of the hardest and most thankless jobs. At any given game, he’s bound to make countless new enemies, who will call into question everything from his eyesight to his sanity to his family’s lineage.
DeMayo can handle the criticism, though, because he knows it’s an occupational hazard of the career he chose.
What has been more difficult to handle are the troubles that await him at home, which make the vitriol he encounters on the court seem like Christmas morning.
Considering that referees aren’t normally viewed as real people with real emotions and real problems, sports fans often overlook the fact that the “zebras” face the same daily challenges as everyone else. They have bills to pay and families to feed, families that they love.
“Everyone likes to yell at the officials, but they go home to the same problems as you and me,” said Dolores DeMayo, Joe’s wife of 36 years. “They’re human beings too.”
Considering refs are lucky to be viewed as humans on a good night, nothing could prepare Joe and Dolores for the overwhelming surge of support that began to flow their way during the family’s darkest time.
The DeMayos, of Somerton, are the parents of four grown children ranging in age from 23 to 32. Their third child, Mike, 28, has been dealing with kidney issues from the time he was 3 months old. At age 4, he received his first kidney transplant from Joe, which lasted for 12 years. When that kidney failed, Mike received his second kidney a short time later. That organ came from a stranger who was killed in a car crash and lasted for almost six years before it began to fail. Now, Mike is hoping for a third transplant, and he continues to receive dialysis treatments three days a week. On top of that, he is recovering from recent reconstructive knee surgery (doctors had to first break Mike’s leg to fix it), as the renal failure has wreaked havoc on his bones and joints. He’s also had to have 16 of his teeth removed.
Then, in April, things went from worse to catastrophic. The couple’s eldest son, 32-year-old Joey, had to be taken to the hospital after not feeling well for months. He, too, was suffering from kidney failure and needs a transplant of his own. As he awaits a donor, Joey also receives dialysis treatments three days a week.
“It’s a way to live, but it’s not a good life,” Dolores said. “They haven’t received a terminal diagnosis, and they are alive, but it’s no way for a young person to live.”
“It’s a quality of life issue,” Joe added. “To go through it once with one kid is one thing, but twice…”
Aside from a few small, correctable kidney anomalies with two of Dolores’ sisters, there is no history of kidney problems on either side of the family. It seems to be one of those cruel, random, unexplained things that just … happened.
“After Joey’s diagnosis, I was numb for a month,” Dolores said. “You learn to accept it and hope things will be all right. We have each other, and everyone’s alive, and we’re going to deal with whatever comes along.”
“We have to keep our strength and lead by example, because if we fall apart, everyone falls apart,” Joe said. “But it absolutely breaks your heart. They’re your children. All you can do is listen to their anger and convince them tomorrow will be better than today, and the next day will be better than tomorrow. At the end of the day, my boys are alive, and I have the benefit of enjoying them every day.”
And as brutally unforgiving as the life of a college referee can be, it’s also a fraternity, a community that takes care of its own. A story in the May 18 edition of the New York Post brought national awareness to the DeMayo family’s plight; and not a month later, the Philadelphia Daily News did the same. The response was immediate, explosive and overwhelming.
Countless letters and phone calls came in offering help. A few of Joe’s referee colleagues started the Joseph DeMayo Kidney Fight Fund, and donations began to pour in, from friends, coaches, colleagues and anonymous benefactors.
Around the same time, Lou DeCree, a longtime local friend of Joe DeMayo’s, got an idea. A mutual friend, George Geiss, had told DeCree about the Daily News story, and DeCree knew he had to do something. He called DeMayo on Father’s Day, and asked permission to organize an event to raise money and awareness for Joe’s sons. The family was initially hesitant, but finally agreed. They have done fine financially, but the medical costs have skyrocketed for their two sons, who cannot work due to their conditions. With the help of a 13-person committee (whose members Joe said “deserve to be acknowledged for their tireless hard work”), the word has spread rapidly, and a benefit/fund-raiser will be held Friday, Nov. 16, for the DeMayo sons (see box below).
“The response has been unbelievable,” DeCree said. “My phone rings all day from people I haven’t heard from in years. ‘What can we do? What can we bring?’ With enough prayers and a couple of kidneys, we can get through this together.”
And although the family’s plight emerged first in the national spotlight because of DeMayo’s public job, this is also a community issue. The DeMayos are lifelong Northeast Philadelphians.
“I think the local response will make my boys feel good,” Joe said. “It will help their mental well-being for them to walk around that room and have so many people pat them on the back, letting them know they aren’t alone. The community up here is very strong, very tight-knit. It’s a neighborhood thing. We stick together.”
Said Dolores: “Sometimes the mentality creeps in that you’re all alone and nobody cares, so it helps to see other people are behind you, facing it with you. It goes beyond the borders of Somerton. We’ve got a strong community up here.”
DeCree said 625 tickets already have been sold for the Nov. 16 benefit and items to be auctioned continue to roll in. DeCree pointed out that he ran into legendary Temple basketball coach John Chaney at a high school football game, and Chaney had donated autographed items by the next day.
And yes, money cannot buy two new kidneys, but it can help alleviate some of Joe and Mike’s suffering while they wait for the phone to ring. A home dialysis machine could make life so much easier for the young men, who cannot live normal lives because of their condition. Not only can they not work, but the situation has impacted everything from their diets to social lives.
“Man could never create what God created in a kidney,” said Dolores, who compared the complicated intricacies of the kidneys to sophisticated “mini-computers.”
The Nov. 16 event should be so enormous in scale, to the point where Dolores is already wondering how the family can use some of the proceeds raised to help rouse awareness for other kidney donors in need of help. The whole outpouring of support has motivated her to “pay it forward,” as she said.
“This isn’t just a fund-raiser as much as it’s meant to be informational,” Joe said, noting there would be information booths where people could sign up for donor cards. “God willing, someone else may get a kidney out of this, too. If that’s the case, then this was a success. If you can give back, then please, give back.”
It remains to be seen what will happen to Mike and Joey DeMayo, but what is more clear is that they have hundreds, if not thousands, of allies in their corner. The relationships Joe DeMayo has built in his life as a “no frills, no BS, what-you-see-is- what-you-get type of guy” are certainly the root of the support, but the family still needs help. And make no mistake about it, the DeMayos are appreciative and humbled by every person who has reached out to help.
“It’s overwhelming, and reassuring,” Dolores said. “It’s an example, I think, of how we all survive. We’re all attached in one big web, with hands reaching out in so many different directions to offer help and support. Those hands reaching out, it keeps the web strong. It keeps us strong.” ••
How to help ...
The DeMayo Family Benefit will be held Friday, Nov. 16, at the Local 692 Sprinkler Fitters Hall (14002 McNulty Road) from 8 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are $40, but will not be sold at the door. To purchase a ticket, contact Lou DeCree at 215-620-2270 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To donate money, send checks (made payable to “Friends of the DeMayo Family”) to Friends of the DeMayo Family, P.O. Box 11511, Philadelphia, PA 19116, or visit www.friendsofthedemayofamily.org
To donate an auction item, contact George Geiss at email@example.com
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org