As It Happens

How two pool players went from smack-talking rivals to 'kidney buddies for life'

Ten years ago, Russ Redhead went on Facebook to accuse his pool rival James Harris Jr. of being a no-good, lying cheater. A decade later, a Redhead went to the University of Maryland Medical Center to give his good friend Harris a kidney.

Russ Redhead and James Harris Jr. go from competitors at the pool table to allies on the operating table

Two men stand side by side, holding pool sticks, in front of a sign that reads "Billiards Room." They're wearing matching black T-shirts that say "Kidney Buddies For Life."
Russ Redhead, right, donated a kidney to his friend and pool rival James Harris Jr., left. (Denise Epps-Harris)

Ten years ago, Russ Redhead went on Facebook to accuse his pool rival James Harris Jr. of being a no-good, lying cheater.

A decade later, Redhead went to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore to give his good friend Harris a kidney.

Now, two months after the Feb. 8 surgery, both men are on the mend. And their journey from the pool table to the operating table has made their bond stronger than ever. 

"I'm feeling great," Harris, 54, of Glen Burnie, Md., told As It Happens Nil Köksal. "It was a life-changing event for me." 

Facebook drama

Redhead and Harris first met 10 years ago when they faced off over a pool table at The Bank Shot Bar and Grill in Laurel, Md., for the chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to a tournament in Las Vegas.

Harris was rated lower than Redhead going into the game, and under the rules, started with a 20-point advantage. 

"James, like, came out swinging. He was doing really well," Redhead, 42, of Lancaster, Pa., said.

"I was thinking that he was what [doing] we call sandbagging, which means some people who try to more or less cheat or abuse the system that makes them a lower rank than what they really are."

Not so, says Harris.

"I just had a good day," he said.

Two men in hospital gowns, one using a walker, make their way down a hospital corridor.
Harris and Redhead at the University of Maryland Medical Center the day after surgery. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

When Harris won, Redhead was outraged. And he made his suspicions public. 

"I made a big Facebook post about it and everything," Redhead said.

"Some people that were James's friends started sticking up for him and started more or less attacking me. I was like, well, maybe I did make a mistake."

Six months later, when the pair met again at a tournament in Maryland, a regretful Redhead apologized. 

After that, a friendship began to blossom. Over the years, the men would compete at tournaments around Maryland and Pennsylvania, and sometimes did sports betting together.

Two men in parallel hospital beds smile and fist-bump each other.
Redhead and Harris fist-bump in their pre-op beds. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

What Redhead didn't know at the time was that Harris was suffering end-stage kidney disease. 

"It was tremendous with the dialysis three times a week, four hours at a time," Harris said. "Eight surgeries I had due to complications."

He couldn't work. He was weak. His treatments made him sporadically nauseous. 

"It's just tiresome," he said. "But pool is what got me through."

What he needed, desperately, was a new kidney. But the wait list, he was told, was at least five years.

It's not an uncommon story. More than 100,000 people in the U.S. are on waitlists for organ donation — and every day, 17 people die waiting, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration

In Canada, the federal government says 4,300 people are waiting for organs, and hundreds die each year.

Harris's wife, Denise Epps-Harris, became her husband's biggest champion, working with the University of Maryland Medical Center and the organ procurement organization Infinite Legacy to spread the word. 

She posted about Harris's plight on Facebook through a local pool tournament organizer. 

But Redhead didn't know any of this when he got to chatting with Epps-Harris at a pool tournament in 2022.

"I thought he was doing fine," he said. "He still shot pool great."

'I'll do it'

As they were chatting, Redhead asked Epps-Harris about the requirements for being a living donor. 

"As she was going down the list, in my head I was just thinking, OK, check, check, check," he said. "I was like, 'Well, I'll do it.'"

Taken aback, Epps-Harris replied: "You'll do what?"

"I said, 'Well, I'll donate,'" Redhead said. "She was like, 'Are you serious?' And I was like, 'Yeah' ... and she just started bawling crying."

And smiling man and woman pose together.
Harris and his wife Denise Epps-Harris, who was his champion and advocate in his search for a living kidney donor. (Denise Epps-Harris)

Harris was more reserved. He'd already had several family members step up to volunteer, only to find out they were not suitable donors.

"I couldn't get too excited," he said.

A week before the surgery, the two men had their final blood tests to make sure they could undergo the procedure safely. They both got the green light.

"That's when it started getting ... a little more real," Harris said.

One man readies a pool stick at a billiards table while another sits to the side and smiles. Both are wearing black T-shirts that read: "Kidney Buddies For Life."
Redhead and Harris shoot some pool in their matching T-shirts at Harris's home the night before their kidney surgery. (Denise Epps-Harris)

The night before surgery, Redhead slept over at Harris's house. As usual, they passed the time by shooting pool.

That's when Epps-Harris surprised them with matching T-shirts that read: "Kidney buddies for life."

"I presented both of them with the T-shirts and said, 'OK, you have to wear them,'" she said. "They were like, ugh. But once they put it on, they were walking around all proud."

The next day, the men were in matching ensembles again — this time, hospital gowns.

Sitting side-by-side in their pre-op beds, they fist-bumped across the room.

The surgery was a success, and Harris says he's feeling better than ever. He's already gearing up for his next pool tournament later this month, and Redhead is getting ready to open his own business. 

But at the pool table, the friendly rivalry continues.

"We'll always still rag on each other here and there, you know? But that's just part of the pool community," Redhead said. "I feel like that's kind of like a special bond."

Interview with Russ Redhead and James Harris Jr. produced by Cassie Argao

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