It all started when my phone rang as I was driving in early 2011. On the other end of the line, was a guy whose name was Mike. But he said everyone called him "Fireball."
Great, I thought to myself. A nickname.
"Fireball" said he was a long-time prison guard in Canada, now retired. The nickname came from his days as a pitcher on a corrections officers' intramural softball team.
And he'd gotten my cell number from a convicted killer.
But there was clearly something "Fireball" was excited to talk to me about.
And let's face it. We producers at Dateline are no strangers to strangers calling us out of the blue. Plenty of those phone calls have led to years of work to unravel tales that eventually ended up on the air.
I hesitated. Mike had managed to get my cell number. And I would be driving for a bit.
So I asked the question. "What can I do for you?"
And thus began a most unexpectedly delightful and genuine friendship; one that would have never been possible without cell phones, social media, and of course, Dateline.
(Later he told me that he thought, 'So what's the worst thing that could happen? Shane hangs up on me?")
On that first call, "Fireball" described himself as a Dateline 'super fan.' And the former pitcher was winding up to pitch me a story. There was a missing native girl in New Brunswick, Canada, 90 miles from his home in Moncton (some 6 hours north of Bangor, Maine). According to Mike, this case had "all the twists and turns you need" for a good Dateline story.
"I'm always looking for a New Brunswick angle for Dateline, right?" he later told me.
So out of all the producers at Dateline, why was he calling me? .
Turned out Mike had been touched by a story Keith Morrison and I had done in the fall of 2010. In fact, the old prison guard had felt compelled to reach out to one of the two killers convicted in the case. He wrote a letter to her, Jessica Reid, who'd been just 17 when she was locked up with two life sentences.
Mike wondered how it had all gone so wrong. How Reid had gone from an honor roll student in Wisconsin to helping her boyfriend murder a prominent farmer and his wife in Nebraska.
Reid had written back. The two had begun corresponding. And Mike, er, "Fireball" had received my number from Jessica Reid.
Dateline didn't end up reporting on that first story "Fireball" pitched. But in the years since that call, Fireball and I have become friends. We've regularly chatted on Facebook Messenger.
He's checked in to see if Keith or I will be anywhere in Arizona during the winter months, as he and his wife are 'snowbirds' with a place near Mesa.
And I learned that Mike is one of those angels among us. The kind of guy who would organize charity softball tournaments. Pay for kickboxing lessons for a kid who couldn't afford them. Even meet with a convicted killer after the man's release, and buy him dinner. Just to see how the former inmate was doing.
And six months ago, Mike had been moved by another case Keith and I teamed up on. So moved, that he had reached out on Facebook to the young woman who'd survived a terrifying encounter with a murderer in our story. He "thanked her for being brave," sent her $100 Outback Steakhouse gift card, and eventually invited her and her boyfriend to Arizona to see Mike and his wife during an anticipated vacation this winter.
"I just have a big heart, I guess," Mike told me. "I was always there for people and never expected anything in return. I just knew it was the right way to do things."
That's why it broke my heart when the guy called "Fireball" threw this curve at me in a message a couple weeks ago.
Shane, I just wanted to share with you the devastation and the bad luck I've had in the last 2 months. My wife Monique has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Please keep my wife in your thoughts and prayers.
Mike and Monique have been married for 23 years. While he worked at the penitentiary, Monique was an LPN at the hospital in Moncton. She's now undergoing chemotherapy. Her prognosis is uncertain.
And there was a second gut-punching part to Mike's message.
To make matters worse my kidneys have failed. Keep up the good work on Dateline as I always will be a super fan. Mike
I immediately checked in with him.
"For about 20 years, my kidney function has gone up and down," Mike explained. "But one morning in November I woke up and I couldn't breathe." Hours later his kidney doctor was "freaking out, saying admit him (to the hospital) right now."
Mike's kidney function was only 8%. He spent four days in the hospital, lost 8 liters of fluid, 22 pounds, and was placed on dialysis. He's now in dialysis three days a week, four hours a day.
"I knew dialysis was coming someday, but having it at the same time as my wife (has cancer) is unreal. It's pretty hard to take. Three months ago we were still planning to winter in Arizona," Mike says
Next month Mike will have a test to see if his heart is strong enough to endure a transplant. If it goes well, he tells us he hopes to be placed on the transplant list for North America. The normal wait for a transplant is between 2 and 5 years.
I hope 2019 will be Mike’s year and, out of the blue, he’ll get a call from a stranger who will change his life for the better.
Just like I did, when a Dateline super fan who called himself "Fireball," reached out to me.