Steelers Nation Unite

A connection like no other

Jim Zimmerman Sr. got a surprise of a lifetime when he was honored before the Steelers-Eagles game as the winner of the Steelers 2022 Fan of the Year for his love and passion for the team.

"I almost cried," said Zimmerman of getting news on the field before the game from linebacker T.J. Watt. "I never expected anything like this in my life. That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."

But his love and passion for the team is just the tip of the iceberg as to why he was selected as the winner this year.

Zimmerman is a man who bleeds black and gold.

He is Pittsburgh born and bred, and he loves all of his Pittsburgh sports teams, with the Steelers as close to his heart as anything in life is.

It's his passion, his joy, his way to find happiness.

On the flip side, one of his newest and closest friends, Bill Soloway loves his Philadelphia sports teams, and has a passion for the Eagles as he is a diehard fan who was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.

But despite his love for the Eagles, he is quick to admit his heart is with the Steelers.

And it's all because of Zimmerman.

* * *

About nine years ago, Soloway was given a diagnosis that changed his entire life. He was diagnosed with Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that took the life of his brother and his mother, and now was threatening his own life after he suffered congestive heart failure.

The outlook was grim and Soloway was in a state of panic. As the primary care giver for his 85-year-old father, John, he didn't know what would happen if his life was cut short like others he loved.

Without many choices, Soloway met with doctors and experts at Gift of Life Donor Program in Philadelphia about the potential of a heart transplant. He knew the odds were stacked against him, but it was his only hope.

"So many people die every day waiting for a life-saving heart transplant," said Soloway. "I didn't want to be a statistic. It's pretty nerve wracking in some instances.

"My quality of life deteriorated to the point where I couldn't do things. I just kind of existed. I was limited in what I could do. Just to walk five steps was a major undertaking. It was like climbing a flight of steps to just going from one room to another and I would get winded. I thought what do I have to lose at this point? To get a heart transplant and possibly get a second chance at life was the only option."

In less than 90 days, in June 2015, Soloway got news that while was great for him, was heartbreaking for another family. Someone who was a donor had passed away, and he was getting their heart.

"It's surreal when you get the news," said Soloway.

After his surgery and recovery there was one thing left that Soloway wanted to do. He wanted to say thank you, tell the family of his donor what it meant to him to get the life-saving heart.

But it wasn't all that easy.

Donors have to write a letter, which is void of any personal details, to the donor family and it had to go through the Gift of Life Donor Program.

"There is a process of letter writing," said Soloway. "I said thank you for this amazing gift. Here is what I am able to do now thanks to this life saving gift. I couldn't put anything in there that would identify me.

"They send it and give the donor family the opportunity to open the letter or not. Some may read it immediately, some wait, some never. My letter was opened immediately, and they wrote back.

"This went on for several communications. It's a certain length of time, letters that have to be received. Then one of us has to say I am interested in meeting you and the other has to agree to sharing contact information. Then you sign a waiver, and the organization pulls out and you can communicate on your own."

A large percentage of people don't ever open the letter, and among those who do, the majority never meet.

In this case, though, things were different.

Soloway got to meet Jim Zimmerman, whose son James Zimmerman Jr. was the donor. James, a former Marine, was an organ donor at the time he unexpectedly died and Soloway was blessed to receive his heart.

The two talked on the phone, formed an immediate bond, and agreed to meet halfway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at an organ donation celebration in Hershey, Pa.

"Bill is a real good man," said Zimmerman. "I felt so blessed meeting him. It was tragic after my son passed away. I don't have much family. Bill reached out to me, he sent me a letter. We sent letters back and forth and didn't know who we were talking to. I was excited to meet him. It was exciting to go out there and meet him. I met him and his father. I feel so blessed I got to meet him. We got to know each other. We contact each other a lot. I call him, he calls me.

"I feel like he is family. He reminds me so much of my son. My son would do anything for anybody. Bill honors my son so much. He rides his bike in contests and he has my son's name on his bike and everything. He sends me pictures of the races and stuff. He is a really good guy. I would never expect to meet somebody like this. I never met a person like him before. He is so kindhearted. He reminds me so much of my son."

One thing they both spoke often of was their love of sports for their hometown teams, but it was when they met that Soloway saw how passionate Zimmerman was about the Steelers.

"When I first met Jim in Hershey, he had a Steelers shirt on," said Soloway. "Every time I would see Jim, he would have some kind of Steelers shirt on. I finally said to him, I do this thing with my father for spring training, and we go see the Phillies, would you like to go to a Pirates game? He said sure. I took him to a game, and he was wearing a Steelers shirt. I said I guess you are a big Steelers fan. He said yeah. I asked if he ever went to a game, and he said he never had the opportunity to. He told me his dad never took him to a game and he wanted to break the cycle and take his son James to a game, but it never happened. That dream never became a reality.

"I looked Jim in the eye and said James is going to take you to a Steelers game. He looked at me cockeyed. I told him I am going to take you to a Steelers game, with James' heart in me."

The two went to see the Steelers play the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium in the home opener this year, a dream come true for Zimmerman.

"It was something out of this world," said Zimmerman. "Just to be there with him, be in that stadium. It meant a lot to me. It was a very important part of my life to be there. It was so exciting. I always wanted to go to a Steelers game. My son and I talked about it a lot. We always wanted to go to one. We went to Pirates games a lot but always wanted to go to a Steelers game. I was so happy. I thought it was the only game I would ever go to. It was so exciting to go there."

As excited as Zimmerman was, Soloway was even happier to provide the experience of his first Steelers game.

"We were right down there near the field," said Soloway. "Jim was like a little kid. He had his Terrible Towel, his Steelers shirt and hat. I captured a moment of him waving the Terrible Towel. To see that picture, that captures the whole sports moment. He was rocketed back in time and the little kid and big sports fan in him. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That picture is worth 10,000 words."

It was while the two were in Pittsburgh for the game that Soloway learned about the NFL Fan of the Year program, and it clicked. He nominated Zimmerman to be the Steelers Fan of the Year, and their story touched many hearts and Zimmerman was selected as the winner.

"What a dream come true to be able to recognize Jim as the Steelers Fan of the Year," said Soloway. "It's amazing. Here I am a diehard Philly sports fan, avid Eagles fan, and now I'm taking Jim to Pirates and Steelers games, and I am a Steelers fan at heart. Had it not been for James saying yes to organ donation, I wouldn't be here today. Every time I see Jim, I give him a big hug because then his son's heart is next to his heart when we do that."

Zimmerman learned that he won the honor when the Steelers hosted him and Soloway at Lincoln Financial Field to see the Steelers and Eagles meet. While Soloway was in on the surprise, Zimmerman had no idea what was in store.

"We talked about the fact that the Eagles and Steelers were playing. It's a rarity for both of our teams to play," said Soloway. "I explained to Jim that I talked about our story and the Steelers wanted to send us to the game. That is how I framed it up. That people were so moved they wanted to do something special for us.

"He was really excited. I asked if he was ever in Philly and the only time was when James died, because he died in the Philly area. He doesn't have good memories of the area. But there are things he wanted to do and see, including getting a Philly cheesesteak.

"He couldn't wait to see another game. He was like gosh, I have never been to a Steelers game and now I am going to two."

While they might have had their own favorite in the game, there was no doubt the black and gold ruled the day in their hearts.

"I brought some Terrible Towels for both of us," said Zimmerman. "I told him, you have my son's heart, and he was a Steelers fan. And he let me know he is a Steelers fan at heart."