Even nearing the final stage of overcoming a chronic kidney disease, Lional Dalton has a way to make one laugh as he enjoys life.
The former Ravens defensive tackle needs a kidney and has found three possible donors in Baltimore, where he played from 1998 to 2001, a four-season stint in a nine-year NFL career that included stops in Denver, Washington, Kansas City and Houston.
That’s the great news.
The good news is that Dalton, 46, is the same free-spirited, fun-loving player he was when he was a top reserve in Baltimore playing behind starters Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa on the Super Bowl championship team in 2000.
Adams was moody and Siragusa cantankerous and brazen, but Dalton was warm-spirited, which is part of the reason he stuck with the nickname of “Jelly Roll.” Close friends just call him “Jelly.”
“My high school football coach was a country boy from Alabama,” Dalton said on a phone call from his home in Atlanta. “One day we had a shot putters’ race at the end of a track meet, just for laughs and giggles to see the fat dudes run. I actually won the race, and my coach said, ‘You must be jelly because jam don’t move like that.’
“All the boys said jelly was rolling, then my dude, Eric, came out and said that’s his name, Jelly Roll. I didn’t like it at first. I used to get mad my freshman and sophomore year, and then girls started calling me Jelly Roll, and they made it sound sexy, so then I started to like it.”
Dalton was never a star here. In fact, he had only 147 tackles, nine sacks and three forced fumbles throughout his career. But lasting nine seasons in the NFL after being undrafted out of Eastern Michigan is remarkable.
More importantly, if you met Dalton, you liked him because he had that just “another guy” personality with a sense of humor to match. But he also had a serious side.
In his second season with the Ravens, Dalton teamed up with the Living Legacy Foundation in Maryland and filmed a public service announcement for the group speaking about the importance of organ donation.
Almost two decades later, that organization might have helped saved his life and ended his 17-month search for a kidney.
According to Dalton, he didn’t have a donor until several months ago. It happened almost by accident. His wife, Tiffany, was looking over some plaques that they had posted on a Hall of Fame wall in his house when she discovered a business card on the back.
She called the Living Legacy Foundation, which set up an appearance for Dalton on “Good Morning America.”
“It was like kidney donor month and I went on to talk about how important it is,” Dalton said. “Then I had two or three people, Baltimore Ravens fans, call in wanting to donate a kidney to me. I went from zero to like three or four. I was really touched by this, the outpouring from Baltimore fans.”
There are approximately 108,000 people in the U.S. waiting for a new kidney, according to the Living Legacy Foundation. Approximately 660,000 people live with kidney failure, and 37 million people have chronic kidney disease, the National Kidney Foundation says. The average wait time for a kidney transplant is three to five years, depending on several factors such as blood type.
Dalton first realized he had kidney problems after waking up from a New Year’s Eve get-together in 2020 at 4 a.m. He had trouble breathing and thought it was asthma related, for which he had medication.
There was no eventual relief, so Dalton was taken to the hospital, where test results showed his kidneys were functioning at only 20%. Doctors recommended dialysis immediately.
“Initially, there was no accepting of the fact that I was sick,” Dalton said. “Mentally, it was tough to adjust. I had played sports all of my life. If you stayed fit, took a pill, then that would fix it. I was used to being in control, but I had to learn to put it in God’s hands and pray about it.”
Dalton said he actually got a first warning about the medical condition when he played for Kansas City (2004 to 2006). A doctor told him he had protein in his urine during a physical.
Dalton said the doctor never told him that was an indication of kidney problems, and Dalton thought he just needed to improve his diet. But looking back after research, Dalton said he would have eliminated a lot of the anti-inflammatory drugs and shots that he took, which further damaged his kidney.
He also pointed fingers at himself for not taking blood pressure medication full-time.
“All that stuff I was taking the last few years [in the NFL] was contributing to the deterioration of the kidney,” Dalton said. “Those shots that I was taking to numb me up so I could play for six hours on Sunday and feel like I was 23, then feel like I was 50 when it wore off. Then I had the high blood pressure, off and on, and it just helped blow out the kidney.”
According to the Living Legacy Foundation, an estimated 3% to 5% of all late-stage kidney failure patients in the U.S. are due to prolonged and high use of anti-inflammatory medication.
Dalton said he is in a much better place now, both mentally and physically. When he first started dialysis, he would sleep most of the next day. But now, despite going to dialysis three times a week for 4 ½-hour sessions, he works out three times a week.
He has lowered his food consumption and is staying with a plant-based diet, which has cut 125 pounds from his one-time playing weight of 361. Dalton’s goal is to remain healthy for himself and his family.
One local woman had planned to donate her kidney to her mother, but the mother died before the transplant. So, she plans to donate to Dalton. Both her and Dalton have the same blood type, according to Dalton, and a report card will be kept on both for the next couple of months.
If both remain healthy, Dalton could have a new kidney by the end of the year, which can last for another 15 to 20 years when coming from a living donor, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Until then, he plans to live life as usual. He is self-employed working in real estate and also an author, having written several books.
And then there is the “Jelly” side.
He often compares every Super Bowl-winning defense with the 2000 Ravens.
“Outside of Warren Sapp and Tampa [in 2002], I haven’t seen one as dominant as the one we had,” he said. “I still got my jersey up on the wall and my kids love to play with the Super Bowl ring, even though it’s too big for them, and even me now.”
He gets phone calls from former Ravens players Duane Starks, Anthony Mitchell, Keith Washington and Cornell Brown.
With Dalton, there is always a story. Another story.
“You remember Biggie, that was my first dog,” Dalton said of his American bulldog, which he kept in Baltimore. “I loved that dog. My girl at the time brought me that dog. She tried to set me up. I guess she figured if I had a dog, I would have to keep her around because I never had a dog my entire life.
“I was tired when I got home sometimes and sometimes it was too cold to take him out, so I started putting him on the treadmill with the leash. Then he wanted to go without the leash, and he would beg to get that exercise in, so it worked out well for both for us. Then one day I just kind of forgot he was on there.”
And how did Biggie get his name?
“He was named after Biggie Smalls, the rapper,” Dalton said. “On the same day Biggie Smalls got shot and killed, I named him Biggie. He was just a 200-pound lap dog. If someone had broken into my place, Biggie would run because he was so intimidated. He was just fun to have around.”
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And so is Lional Dalton.