GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — When faced with her son’s tragic death in Michigan in 2019, Amanda Garza didn’t know a decision she made would lead to her embracing a former Nebraska football coach three and a half years later.

But she did know she was making the right choice.

“As soon as I knew that Nathanael was no longer going to live, I wanted the Gift of Life in there because I knew they could help me save lives,” Amanda said.

Through her shock and grief, Amanda had the presence of mind to request organ donation specialists immediately.

“The Gift of Life of Michigan was just a way for me to be able to continue my son’s life in other people," Amanda said. "It’s a way for him to live on.”

At that same time in Nebraska, Barney Cotton’s heart was failing. The former NU offensive lineman and Husker assistant coach of eight years needed a transplant.

“I’d had a balloon pump put in to assist my heart and I was probably within weeks or days of not being around,” Cotton said.

Nathanael Garza’s heart was a match, fitting within the 500-mile radius for donor organs by just 10 miles. The procedure at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha was a success and Cotton feels reborn.

“I’ll tell you what, I can breathe," Cotton said. "I work out a couple hours a day, I’ve got two different fitness bikes and I walk.”

It’s not lost on Cotton that he’s still here because of someone else’s tragedy. That’s why he was eager to contact his donor’s family. He met Amanda for the first time on Thursday and the pair spoke at a donation remembrance ceremony at CHI Health St. Francis in Grand Island on Friday.

“They’re the real heroes," Cotton said. "I was given the gift of life, they were the givers of the gift.”

Now the father of three former Nebraska football players says he encourages others to be heroes and sign up as organ donors.

“If they could see the joy that it brings to the family of the recipient, where I’m a dad just like I always was and I’m a husband just like I always was," Cotton said. "I don’t have any restrictions in my life. It was really between life and death.”

For Amanda, she says it’s a privilege to see Nathanael’s legacy live on. 

“Just to know that my son made the decision on his own at 20 years old to donate life, to be a donor," Amanda said. "Then, when he actually passed, to have it work out so he could be a donor, it just makes me really proud of my son. It makes me love him that much more.”