Dreams do come true

My lifelong dream fulfilled

The Dream Foundation, NFL and Others Send West Virginia Writer to the Super Bowl

By John C. Dean

Tuesday afternoon, January 23, 2024

It had been a while since I last smiled or laughed. I couldn’t recall the last time. I had been struggling with my cancer symptoms. It’s been rough couple of weeks.

It was almost time to get out of my warm, comfy recliner and gather what I needed for my chemotherapy session at Charleston Area Medical Center tomorrow. I just had to make myself do this. Get up John, I told myself.

“Just five more minutes,” I told myself. “I’ll snooze the cell phone. That gives me 10 minutes.”

As I picked up that handheld computer, it rang, somewhat startling me. I didn’t recognize the area code (415), but since being diagnosed with cancer in June 2022, I just answer the phone now unless I do not want to talk. I guess it was time to wake up and get going, right?

“Mr. Dean?” the female voice pleasantly questioned on the other end.

“Yes, speaking,” I replied.

“Mr. Dean, this is Rebecca Steiger. I’m a Dream Coordinator with the Dream Foundation in Santa Barbara, California.

“Yes . . .”

I was hoping that Rebecca would relay news of something that I had dreamed about for more than 55 years. The wait for Rebecca to continue speaking seemed extraordinarily long, though it was probably just a second or two.

Is this it, I wondered. Could this be occurring? Am I still asleep in my recliner and this is just the end of a dream before I awake to the reality that I need to get ready for chemotherapy tomorrow? No, please let this be real. No tricks!

“Mr. Dean, I am calling to tell you that you have been selected by the Dream Foundation as the recipient of a trip to this year’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas!”

My jaw dropped open and I almost lost control of the phone. I had to grasp the side of the recliner to make sure I didn’t end up sprawled across the floor. A smile began to form on my face.

“Oh my gosh,” was my reply. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this is happening!” The smiles had begun.

“It is happening, Mr. Dean. It is. Congratulations!”

“I’m going to the Super Bowl,” I yelled much louder than I normally talk. “I’m not going to Disney Land! I’m going to the Super Bowl.”

Of course, I had to decide who I would be taking with me to Super Bowl LVIII. This was an easy decision. Ken L. Garrett, my nephew, is the most deserving individual that I know of to accompany me to the game. Ken has been there throughout the years for many others, selfishly helping his family and anyone else, but never asking for a dime in return. He also is a bigger sports fan than me, super-knowledgeable about everything football. It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime dream for both of us. We had previously discussed going together but Ken advised me that I needed to focus on my health and make wise financial decisions.

How Did This Just Happen?

Wednesday, January 24, 2024 – Nineteen days until the Super Bowl. Less than three weeks until the Big Game. Wow! This all still seemed surreal.

I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face that day, the next day, the next week or even the next month as the rest of Tuesday, January 23, 2024 became a whirlwind of activity—phone calls, texts, emails, talking and visiting with friends and neighbors here in Oak Hill, West Virginia. Oak Hill is in southern West Virginia, just miles from America’s newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, close to my modest single-story home. I wasn’t in my recliner much the next few weeks, but my smile and excitement persisted.

For how all this came to be, please read on.

January 6, 2024 –I had waited long enough. If I wanted to have a chance to go to this year’s Super Bowl, I needed to get my application submitted to the Dream Foundation and make sure I knew what the application process and rules were. A two- to three-page letter from me; mostly personal details and medical information related to my cancer diagnosis, and contact information for my pancreatic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City were required.

In June 2022, at the Cleveland Clinic, a biopsy determined that I had inoperable Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. Since then, I have progressed to Stage 4, inoperable, metastatic cancer (which has spread from my pancreas to my stomach lining). Currently, I am undergoing treatment with a third different chemo regimen and am on a waiting list for a clinical trial that specifically targets my genomic mutation (KRAS G12R), hopefully beginning no later than June 2024. I have been told that I have six months to live. Against all odds, I REFUSE to give up!!!

To help defray my medical expenses and travel-related costs, a GoFundMe campaign has been established. Moreover, you can read more about my cancer survival journey there.

On a more positive note, all during the waiting time until that fateful phone call awoke me, I kept everything quiet. No one knew. Just me. It was wait, wait and then wait some more!

How Was This Ever Possible For Me?

An all-expenses (airfare, rental vehicle, hotel and Super Bowl tickets) paid trip to the Super Bowl? Get outta here! How does that become a reality for me, especially for a person with eight brothers and sisters who grew up poor, living at the end of a dirt road?

My dad worked at the largest state park in West Virginia and housing was provided, which helped my family survive financially. In addition, my four brothers, four sisters, parents and I helped our grandparents work the fields on a 211-acre far that bordered the park. We would plant and harvest much-needed winter vegetables, fruits and jellies to get through the challenging winter weather.

To teach me how to save, my mom would show me how she deposited pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters in 25-gallon pickle crock. Learning how to do that allowed me in later years in life to pay for tickets to World Series and NBA championship games.

These days, I am still a writer and editor part-time and I devote any free writing time to Watoga State Park. This 10,000-acre recreation area is West Virginia’s first international dark sky park. Doing so for the park is my way of giving back to a place that gave me so much growing up there and living on site for 16 years.

All of this was possible because of five words:

The Dream Foundation and Others

Founded in 1994 and based in Santa Barbara, California, this nonprofit organization has been fulfilling the dreams of people with terminal illnesses for almost three decades. They have made the Dreams of 34,000 terminally ill adults possible. That’s amazing.

The phenomenal Dream Foundation put together a team for me that covered every possible scenario. I mentioned Rebecca Steiger, Dream Coordinator. She’s the one who called me with the fantastic news. Rebecca was crucial to the success of this trip and was there for me every step of the way. Included as part of this experienced team was Dani Cordaro, press coordinator, who helped me traverse the media throughout this process, setting up interviews and keeping social media updated.

Graciously, the NFL donated two tickets to the game to make all of this possible. We slept well, with special thanks to South Point Hotel, Casino, and Spa for its extravagant hotel accommodations. Many thanks to American Airlines and United Airlines for getting us both to Vegas and back home safely. And, having a rental vehicle provided by Turo allowed Ken and I to fulfill another dream (more on that later).

Even though I am considered a part of the media, I took several steps back from getting too involved with publicity related to the Super Bowl. It would be great to cover the Super Bowl, but this wasn’t the time to do that! Maybe next year? The idea of that makes me keep on smiling!

Sunday, January 28, 2024 – At home, I watched the AFC and NFC Championship Games closely so Ken and I knew the teams as soon as possible that we would be seeing compete soon. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers beat the Detroit Lions. The Super Bowl Matchup I would see in less than two weeks now had been set. Go Chiefs!

Sunday, February 4, 2024 – I always liked the Sunday off before the Super Bowl. It gave me time to go shopping, cook, and invite friends to watch the game.

However, this is the year never to be forgotten! In a week, I will be in Allegiant Stadium, in the Pacific Time Zone, sitting in the NFL’s newest mecca to play the game of all games—complete with gladiators in differing shades of red uniforms!

I was still on a natural high leading up to the week of the game. However, there was a lot to do to prepare for this exhilarating adventure. Details to finalize included all airline reservations for Ken and myself, additionally, we needed to familiarize ourselves with security clearances (what you could take on the plan and what you couldn’t). Making sure my Known Traveler Number (KTN) was included on the airline tickets. Getting this KTN in advance of flying (60-90 days) is fantastic. I had previously taken care of this when I realized I would be flying a lot for cancer treatment to New York.

Monday, February 5-Tuesday, February 6 – I was determined to wrap everything up by Wednesday and if you know the Deans, when we’re determined, we move it along. I completed the airline process and moved on to hotel reservations, rental cars and tickets to the event that had only been a pipedream in my mind for so long. Days to go. Still smiling. These last two weeks have really taken my mind off of my cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s been a great diversion, an escape from a lot of time spent on cancer-related issues and matters. I needed this.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024 – Sitting alone in Bay 4 at CAMC’s Cancer Center, I realized how blessed, humbled and grateful I am for not only getting to go to the Super Bowl, but also for everything family, friends and work associates had done to help me get this far in my battle against cancer. Yes, it is a battle, a war, not completely unlike the battle that occurs on the gridiron in the Super Bowl.

Yet, every day is different. It can change suddenly, oftentimes in a heartbeat, especially with pancreatic cancer. I was very happy that this would be my last chemo until Wednesday, February 21 when I would be savoring the moments and highlights of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I’m Going To The Super Bowl!

A complete sense of fulfillment enveloped me that this dream was on the verge, the culmination of a horse-racingTrifecta – the Super Bowl! It’s the icing on the cake.

Saturday, February 10, 2024 – 10:30 a.m. – We arrived at West Virginia Yeager International Airport (CRW). Chuck Yeager is the world-famous Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, best known for breaking the sound barrier. We’re on the plane! Woot! Woot! Vegas and Super Bowl Bound, baby! Ken is still as excited as I am (yes, he can’t stop smiling either). You can see the exhilaration in his brown eyes. I think he’s thanked me 27 times for taking him with me. Easy decision for him to go, like I said.

We arrived in Vegas at approximately 5 p.m. PST, met the rental agent and drove to the South Point Hotel, Casino, and Spa on the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. Beautiful spacious rooms (500 square feet), 25-story hotel, 2,163 rooms, 160,000 square-foot casino, 11 restaurants, bowling alley, movie theater and more. When I realized all there was to do here, I knew that Ken and I would never get to do even half of it in our four-day, three-night stay, but we’d give it a try!

That evening, we took in several comedians at Shaq’s Comedy Club (one of Ken’s favorite professional basketball players during his heyday with the LA Lakers). A good time. Lots of laughs. Nice way to end the evening. We needed this. It made me smile too.

Sunday, February 11, 2024 – The Big Day and Big Game have arrived! What can I say? Today is such a natural high and it’s only hours before game time. Ken and I arrived early to take in some of the sights and sounds of the pregame celebrations, the aroma of burgers and dogs sizzling on a grill. The look on people’s faces, as they savored a big, ole Kansas City barbeque, piled high with that savory, perfectly grilled meat, was priceless. To add to the festivities, the music was rocking.

2 p.m. Less than 90 minutes until kickoff. Ken and I moseyed toward our seats. Along the way, we did some people-watching, took some photos and videos, and checked out the various vendor stands selling food, drinks and merchandise.

3 p.m. Comfortably in our seats with a nice view along the 10-15 yard line (Kansas City’s goal line in the first and third quarters), we settled in for the festivities (Post Malone sang America the Beautiful followed by Reba McIntire’s rendition of the national anthem).

3:30 p.m. Game Time! It’s kickoff time! I will leave out the play-by-play of the game since most of you probably know the result by now. The following describes some of the feelings and emotions that I felt during this momentous experience:

Chills up and down my spine. Tingles along my arms! The hair on the back of my neck standing at attention. A natural high. Beyond belief. You have to be here to truly take in the excitement. It’s unlike watching it on tv at home. A different world. Is this really happening? Yes, and you’re still smiling, John!

As if scripted just for me, an overtime Super Bowl topped all of my expectations. The team I wanted to win won too!

Well, I guess that just about sums everything up. I had a great time . . .

But, no, wait, there’s more. Are you wondering what more could there be?

A Mesmerizing Mecca

How about going to the Grand Canyon on Monday before flying home on Tuesday?

Monday morning, February 13, 2024 – Beautiful sun-filled drive of about 90 minutes to the west rim of this amazing natural wonder. I drove into Arizona and let Ken take in all of the scenery. We spent most of the day walking around, doing a little shopping, taking in the views from the skywalk and more.

While photos are captivating and stunning, they do not do this mesmerizing marvel of a mecca justice unless seen with your own eyes. If you ever have the opportunity, spend at least a week at the Grand Canyon! My words and these photos will never be able to capture what it’s like.

And yes, rest assured, I am still smiling.

About the Author

John Dean, writer and editor, is a Pocahontas County native, having grown up on-site at Watoga State Park for 16 years when his dad was a park ranger. He focuses primarily on dealing effectively with his cancer diagnosis and highly recommends getting a second opinion. John is a member of the Watoga State Park Foundation Board of Directors.