Besides his friend Wilson, almost no one knew that Kraddick’s cancer diagnosis propelled him into a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. He also began an aggressive round of stem-cell treatments that took a toll on his body. No matter how sick he was, though, Kraddick wasn’t going to miss Walt Disney World.
He had started Kidd’s Kids in 1991, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly on one day a year, in small donations from listeners, to send terminally and chronically ill children to the theme park. Wilson, as president of the charity, often accompanied Kraddick on the yearly trip. In 2010, as they arrived at the park, they were scheduled to meet some of the 250 mothers, fathers, and children to ride the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. But as soon as they stepped out of the van, Kraddick turned white.
“We’ve got a problem,” Kraddick said.
They ducked around a wall, and Kraddick began to vomit. Wilson wanted to flag down a van and take Kraddick back to the hotel, but Kraddick refused. He asked for a Sprite and breath mints. Wilson stashed plastic bags in his pocket and doled them out as Kraddick needed them. When they got to the roller coaster, there were about 25 kids waiting to ride with him.
“He gets on the roller coaster with them, rides it, comes off, grabs me, and throws up in the bushes for 20 minutes,” Wilson says. “Then he would go over to the Tower of Terror, yuk it up with all the kids, have a great time, then come grab me again. We did that the entire trip.”
Wilson pressed Kraddick to tell close friends what was going on. Some had begun to wonder whether he had developed a drug problem. The speculation angered Wilson, but given how Kraddick looked, it made sense. Wilson argued that Kraddick should at least tell his daughter, Caroline. But the last few years had been difficult for Kraddick and his daughter. He had divorced her mother in 2008, after 21 years of marriage, and Kraddick didn’t want to put any additional strain on their relationship.
Then one day, Caroline found a stash of marijuana in Kraddick’s downtown condo. Caroline became upset and met Wilson for lunch.
“It’s not what you think,” he told her. “You should ask your father about it. But if you ask the question, you need to be prepared for the answer.”
The discovery forced Kraddick to tell Caroline about his cancer diagnosis. He had gotten the marijuana, he explained, to help with nausea.
Over time, Kraddick’s treatments seemed to work. Doctors declared him cancer-free and his prognosis, they said, was good. Even so, they warned of serious side effects, including organ damage, that could shorten his life. Kraddick finally told a few close friends about the cancer, feeling it wouldn’t be a burden anymore. He also started making plans to ensure that his radio show, and Kidd’s Kids, could survive after he was gone. He called Weiss, his friend and former co-host, who had left to start his own show in Atlanta. Weiss was deeply loyal to his mentor, and considered him a best friend.
“I’m not going to be doing this forever, Kraddick told him. “We need to start thinking of a hand-off plan.”
Kraddick didn’t tell Weiss about his illness. He just said that one day he’d like to retire and actually get some sleep. They began crafting a plan. First, Weiss transferred his own show to Kraddick’s network. Kraddick then helped guide Weiss through syndication, expanding his show to 20 cities. Kraddick planned to slowly introduce Weiss to his listeners, then finally name him as a replacement.
Over time, Kraddick’s hair grew back. He gained weight. He started working out, eating healthier. He felt he had been given a second chance, that he had been lucky. A new song came out by one of his favorite artists, Ben Folds, called “The Luckiest.” It quickly became a favorite.
I don’t get many things right the first time / In fact, I am told that a lot / Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls brought me here … Now I see it every day / and I know that I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
One afternoon, Kraddick slipped into a chair at a tattoo parlor. He had never before wanted a tattoo, telling friends he couldn’t imagine a word or symbol that he would want to live with forever. Now he felt differently. He asked the artist to draw a musical staff on his left bicep, covered with the first four notes of the song. Beneath it, in cursive script, his tattoo read, “The Luckiest.”
Through 2011 and 2012, Kraddick’s health remained good. He met a woman, Lissi Mullen, and fell in love. With her, his friends believed, he seemed more content and peaceful than ever.
Then something puzzling happened. One of his teeth fell out. He snapped a picture and texted it to Wilson. What the hell?
Kraddick went to a dentist and learned that many of his teeth were loose. His jawbone was deteriorating, doctors said, and he’d likely lose them all. Kraddick wasn’t sure of the cause, but believed it was the stem-cell treatments.
One afternoon, Kraddick lay sedated on an operating table to have all his teeth removed and replaced with a temporary mold. The procedure was supposed to take four hours, but it stretched longer and longer. After 12 hours, Kraddick’s teeth were finally gone, and Kraddick, having been under longer than planned, had wet his pants. Wilson carried him to the car.
“Okay, this is officially the lowest point in our relationship,” Kraddick said. “We’ve got to find some new friends.”
Today, Wilson marvels at Kraddick’s demeanor. “I can’t express to you the horrific amount of pain he was in, and the post-op haze, and this horrific day he’s just had,” he said. “Yet he still wants to crack a joke. That made it easier on me. And I know that seeing me laugh, it made it easier on him.”
Weeks later, Kraddick returned to get his new implants. Another long procedure. At home, Kraddick was in pain and couldn’t eat solid food. The implants not only changed the way he looked but also how he sounded. He stayed home for a week to recover, looking in a mirror, trying to sound like his old self. He played tapes of himself and tried to mimic his voice. He called Wilson repeatedly.
“How about now? Do I sound right?”
“Nope,” Wilson replied.
“Damn!” he said, slamming down the phone.
In June, Kraddick flew his cast to a mansion in Beverly Hills for an annual “family vacation.” Kraddick stood on a sunny portico, broadcasting live, when Dr. Phil McGraw, who lived down the street, strolled across the yard.
“Oh, my God! Dr. Phil!” Kraddick told his listeners in mock surprise. “What’s going on, man? Grab a mic.”
The men had known each other for about 20 years, first meeting at a Mavericks game, then becoming friends as their careers took off. For a time, McGraw had appeared on the show as a regular weekly guest. He was one of the few people Kraddick had told about his illness.
This day, McGraw played along with a bit about how neighbors were getting upset with the commotion caused by the show and its crew. McGraw refused to say which neighbor was leading the complaints. Working their way to the punch line, Kraddick finally got it out of McGraw: it was Justin Bieber.
After the show ended, Kraddick pulled McGraw aside and led him to his room. He pulled out a box and revealed a huge diamond ring.
“Now don’t throw me out the window,” Kraddick said. “But I’m getting married.” He quizzed McGraw about the ring. “What do you think of it? Is it big enough? Too big? Too flashy? Not flashy enough?”
“I told him, hell, for a bit, I’d marry him for that ring,” McGraw says.
The men played a round of golf at the Bel-Air Country Club later that afternoon. And, as inevitably happened, they found a shady spot under a tree. Kraddick had a lot on his mind that day. He told McGraw he planned to propose to his girlfriend later that week in Hawaii. He was worried about breaking the news to his daughter, who was then 23 years old. His girlfriend was 21 years his junior—at 32, closer in age to Caroline than to him. Then there was the divorce. Caroline was likely to have complicated feelings about another engagement. Even so, Kraddick felt he didn’t have time to waste.
“His attitude was, ‘Look, I don’t know how long I’ve got left, and I don’t want to waste a day of it,’ ” McGraw says. “ ‘I’m going to ask her to marry me, and we’re going to get married without any big delay, and I just want to do it in a way that is not inappropriate with my daughter.’ ” Kraddick didn’t seem morbid or panicked about his future, McGraw says. In fact, McGraw had never seen him happier.
From Hawaii, Kraddick sent McGraw updates by text. Mullen said yes. He called Caroline. All was well. He also sent a text to his daughter: You will always be my number one girl.
After he returned to Dallas in July, Kraddick went to see Caroline. Once a week, often on Tuesdays, he would drive to Fort Worth and take her to lunch. Usually their conversations were lighthearted, as they caught up on Caroline’s PR job and which recording artist Kraddick had just met. But on this afternoon, the mood was serious. Caroline asked about his engagement and wondered why he was keeping it so private. Why hadn’t he told his listeners? She didn’t know his fiancée well, had only met her a few times. But she worried for her father, always concerned whether the women he dated were after his money.
Then Kraddick did something that surprised Caroline. He apologized. He said he was sorry for talking about her personal life on the radio for all those years, for getting her into trouble with friends by revealing details on air that, to a teenager, had been mortifying. His formula for radio—keeping it real, letting listeners into his own life—had meant that everyone around him became material for his show. Any personal moment might be spun into a story for his listeners. Sometimes, in the pressure to fill four hours of air time, he couldn’t resist telling the stories, no matter the cost to those around him.