He may have grown up in a rural area in West Virginia’s largest state park – Watoga – but John Dean has been to quite a few big deal events. He attended a lot of home games of his beloved Cleveland Browns when he lived in that city and he saw the West Virginia University Mountaineers compete in the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana; and was in the stands for Game 2 of the 1995 World Series with the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians and Game 4 of the 2007 NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs.
Dean is quite the sports fan, but there was one big deal game he had yet to attend – a Super Bowl.
You could say it’s been a dream and now, that dream is coming true with the help of the Dream Foundation, a non-profit foundation which literally fulfills the dreams of individuals who have been diagnosed with a life limiting illness.
In 2022, Dean was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He was given a life expectancy of one and a half to two years.
With a lump in his throat, Dean took the news as well as could be expected, but didn’t let the bad news keep him from seeking the best treatment possible.
“I was being treated at the Cleveland Clinic, which is in the top ten in the United States, but then I ran into an issue where their technology advances and their clinical trials available for me were not on a comparable level as MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, or Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York,” he said.
After a lot of research, Dean chose Memorial Sloan Kettering as the place to take his treatment, with Dr. Eileen O’Reilly, a world-renowned pancreatic oncologist.
By 2023, O’Reilly informed Dean that his cancer had spread to his stomach and his pancreatic cancer was now Stage 4.
Although he is still fighting a difficult battle, Dean said he knows that getting a second opinion and doing his research to find O’Reilly has prolonged his life.
“If I hadn’t gotten a second and third opinion, I do not think I would be here today,” he said.
Knowing that he was working with a deadline – something he’s used to from his journalism career – Dean set out to make his dream come true.
“The way I found out about it is interesting because it was maybe a couple weeks before the playoffs were going to start and I saw an ad for the Make a Wish Foundation that grants wishes for kids with cancer,” he said. “I thought, ‘I wonder if they do that for adults,’ so I just researched it. It came up fairly quickly in a Google search of organizations or non-profits that will help adults with final wishes.”
The Dream Foundation was founded in 1994 and in its 30 years of operation, it has granted 35,000 dreams, COE Kisa Heyer said.
With thousands of dreams to process and approve, Heyer said it really does take a village – organizations like the NFL, hotels and airlines all work with the foundation to make sure applicants get a fully actualized dream.
After learning about the foundation’s work, Dean quickly sat down and wrote a letter to the Dream Foundation about his dream to go to the Super Bowl – a dream that wasn’t his first choice.
“I really wanted to go to the summer Olympics this year and stay in Paris for a week,” he said.
The Dream Foundation doesn’t do international travel, so Dean picked his next dream and on February 10, he will fly out of Yeager Airport in Charleston.
Once Heyer, public relations consultant Dani Cordaro and dream coordinator Rebecca Steiger read Dean’s letter, they all knew they wanted to make his dream come true.
Steiger said she swiftly went into action coordinating with the NFL, the airline and hotel in Las Vegas to make the trip truly memorable.
Although they won’t get a chance to meet Dean in person, all three said they were moved by his beautiful letter and were so happy to organize the trip for him.
Dean was granted a four day, three-night trip and was given a chance to take one person with him. He chose his nephew, Ken Garrett, who, Dean is first to admit, is a bigger football fan than he is.
“He won’t tell you this, but I will,” Dean said of his nephew. “Ken is the type of person that will bend over backwards to help anybody else – friends or family. But he never asks for anything in return and that was one of the main reasons that I selected him. I knew what a big football fan he was, so he was a natural fit.”
At first, Garrett admits he was skeptical about his uncle’s invitation.
“My initial thought when John called and told me that we’re going to the Super Bowl was that I didn’t want to fall for the joke because I’d never live it down,” he said laughing. “You have to understand that, in our family, a good joke comes with bragging rights.”
Once he realized the invitation was real, Garrett felt honored that Dean selected him.
“It was kind of a surreal moment to realize we’re actually going to watch the Super Bowl in person,” he said. “I also realized he could have picked any number of people [to go with him]. Given the magnitude of the event, that was no small gesture on his part. I was both humbled and appreciative that he thought of me.”
While neither of their favorite teams are in the Super Bowl – for Dean it’s the Cleveland Browns and for Garrett it’s the Washington Commanders (Redskins) – they are both excited to see the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada.
The two will arrive in Las Vegas on February 10 and return to Charleston Tuesday, February 13. Other than the big event, the two will have time to enjoy a road trip to the Grand Canyon on Monday.
“Ken has always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and so have I,” Dean said. “We’re going to drive over to the Grand Canyon and take in part of that natural beauty.”
It will be an interesting trip – going from one of the biggest and loudest events in the country on Sunday with the Super Bowl to going to one of the biggest and quietest National Parks in the country on Monday.
It truly is a dream come true for Dean who has been beyond excited since the Dream Foundation contacted him.
“I am still smiling,” he said. “I can’t get this smile off my face.”
For more information on the Dream Foundation or to apply to get a dream approved, visit dreamfoundation.org