Commentary

Coach steps up with kidney donation

Originally Published: February 8, 2011
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

On July 1, 2009, a Saturday morning, the phone rang at the home of Keith and Charlene Jordan in Columbus, Ga.

[+] EnlargeTom Walter
Brian Westerholt/Sports on Film Tom Walter never hesitated when asked to take the tests to find out if he was a match.

The call came during the first moments of the first day that the NCAA allowed college baseball coaches and their recruiters to reach out to rising high school seniors. On the other end of the line was Tom Walter, who had been head coach at Wake Forest for all of 16 days. Walter asked to speak to their son, Kevin, a left-handed hitting machine of an outfielder whom the coach had taken a liking to as a "below-the-radar talent." The Jordans had met Walter briefly once before and all agreed that, in Keith's words, "sometimes you can look a man in the eye and you know if he means what he says and he says what he means." Of course he could talk to Kevin.

Initially, Walter's official sales pitch wasn't much different than all the others that Kevin would hear over the coming months. The coach hoped to convince the young man that the decision to come to play ball at his university was the first step in a lifetime of success.

What neither Keith nor Charlene could have possibly known at the time was that the call was much more than that. It was the first step on a path that would eventually save the young man's life.

On Feb. 7, 2011, a Monday morning, Walter and Kevin Jordan chatted again, this time in Atlanta's Emory University Hospital. Then Walter was wheeled away into his operating room.

By day's end, one of the coach's kidneys would be inside the player's body.

The natural

Kevin Jordan was always a great athlete, too good at too many sports to become baseball-specific. Because of that, it took a little while for the college and pro scouts to catch on, despite the fact that as a sophomore he was named to the Columbus Journal-Ledger's All-City team.

[+] EnlargeJordan
Brian Westerholt/Sports on Film Kevin Jordan hasn't yet taken the field for Wake Forest, but he has an indelible bond with his coach.

But Tom Walter was a coach known throughout the college baseball community as someone who could see a bright future in places where others wouldn't even bother to look. In 2002, he'd led George Washington University to its first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade and just its fourth since 1959. Three years later, he guided the New Orleans Privateers through the ordeal of Hurricane Katrina, moving the team to three different cities over four months before moving back onto campus. Then he led UNO to back-to-back tournament berths before moving to Wake Forest.

So when Walter heard that "Jordan's never focused enough on baseball," he just laughed. He had seen the kid's smooth stroke at the plate and he was in love.

"I like athletes," he'd said last fall as he discussed his incoming class. "I can't teach a hitter how to run fast, throw hard, or track a pitch at 95 mph. I can teach him how to utilize those skills, but the ability itself comes from God and no one else. Kevin Jordan is a kid that was blessed with those tools."

Five of them, to be exact. He'd turned heads with his explosive arm, speed and swing. He further proved that point on Oct. 24, 2009, when he finished second in the Bo Jackson 5-Tool Championship, winning the Power Hitting portion of the contest and officially erasing any remaining shreds of "under the radar."

Still, two weeks later he announced he would be attending Wake Forest, choosing the long-struggling Demon Deacons program over the more powerful likes of Vanderbilt, Arizona State and Auburn. Why? Because he liked Wake's reputation for academics. And he really liked Walter. Even as his buzz began to grow with pro scouts, he stuck with Wake.

"It's very important to note here that Wake Forest also stuck with Kevin," his father is quick to interject. "Even as he developed his medical problems."

'He didn't feel right'

Through the middle of his senior year at Northside-Columbus High School, Kevin inexplicably began to slow down. At first, just he noticed that he was fatigued easily and that he wasn't reacting as quickly on the field. As it worsened, his parents caught on. "He didn't feel right, but he still wanted to compete," Keith Jordan said via telephone last week, recalling his son's final prep baseball season. "He didn't do as well as he had in earlier years but they still made the playoffs … and he actually got some of it back by the first of April, but you knew that something still just wasn't right."

The initial diagnosis in January had been the flu. But by April Kevin had lost 30 pounds, so his local doctors sent him to Emory for answers. A series of tests revealed that the 18-year-old suffered from ANCA vasculitis, a condition of autoimmunity, in which one's immune system begins attacking the body's own healthy cells. In Kevin's case, ANCAs (anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibodies) were attacking the walls of the small blood vessels in his kidneys, creating swelling and leaking blood and protein into his urine. As a result, his kidneys were operating at 15 to 20 percent of their abilities. They were failing quickly.

That spring he began taking 35 pills a day. By summer he was on dialysis three times a week.

On June 8, the Yankees took Jordan with the final pick of the 19th round of the MLB draft, the 595th selection overall. Keith Jordan says that rumors about his son's health (the description that made it onto the official draft reports was "strep throat that led to an infection") didn't factor into the negotiations with the Yankees that followed. But it is hard to find a draft analyst who doesn't think that such chatter is what led to his drop in stock.

Walter would hear none of it. He assured Kevin that his scholarship to Wake Forest was still there.

On campus

That August, Kevin enrolled at Wake for the fall semester. His parents worried about sending their ailing son more than 400 miles away, but his confidence calmed their concerns. "His focus was, 'I want to live as normal of a life as I can,'" says Keith. "It was his decision to move forward with it."

Two days before classes began, Kevin, his parents, Walter and WFU trainer Jeff Strahm met with doctors at Wake Forest Medical Center. The news was not good. His kidney function was down to 8 percent.

A transplant was now imminent.

For the next three and a half months, Kevin spent roughly six hours a day as a typical student-athlete, never missing a class and working out with the team when he was up to it. The other 18 hours were spent back in his room, hooked up to a home dialysis machine.

Back home in Columbus, his mother and brother were tested in the search for a kidney donor. Neither were a match. Keith's high blood pressure meant that he wasn't a candidate, either. Kevin seemed destined for the maddening process of the donation waiting list. The United Network of Organ Sharing estimates that more than 80,000 people are currently awaiting a kidney transplant. In 2009, there were just 10,442 donated.

"The amazing thing about all of this is that his attitude never changed. He's the kind of kid that's always looking forward," says Keith. "If anything we just talk more about people being donors, people making sure they check that box on their driver's license to be a donor."

'Approved!'

When Kevin went home at the end of the semester he had already informed Wake Forest and the baseball staff that he wouldn't be back after the holidays while he waited for a solution. Tom Walter hoped that maybe he had one.

[+] EnlargeWalter
Brian Westerholt/Sports on Film Walter expects to rejoin his team in time for the start of the season.

As the family's test results started coming back negative, Walter told Keith Jordan that he realized he and Kevin share the same blood type, and if they needed him to, he would take the donor compatibility test. "The last person tested was Kevin's brother and it came back negative," Walter said, "so Keith called me and said, 'If you were serious, we might need you to do this.' I never hesitated."

On Dec. 20, 2010, the coach took the first round of tests. He passed. On Jan. 3, he took the next round. He passed again. He traveled to Emory, where he spent two days being tested for blood pressure and clotting. Finally, on Jan. 28, while overseeing practice, he received word that he was indeed a match. He quickly banged out an e-mail to the Jordan family.

"APPROVED!"

Three days later, Walter met with Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman and informed him of his desire to donate his kidney to a kid who'd never made as much as one plate appearance for Wake Forest. Wellman also never hesitated.

Later that day, Walter met with his team. Only a handful of them had gotten to know Kevin during his brief time on the field. Even fewer had witnessed his self-operated dialysis marathon. They had all followed Kevin's worsening condition on his Facebook page. But none of them knew that their coach was being tested as a possible donor.

When Walter told them what he would be doing in one week, less than two weeks before the start of their season, the news was met with shocked silence. Then a round of applause.

Joined at the hip

At 8 a.m. Monday, Tom Walter was rolled into his operating room. Ninety minutes later, Kevin Jordan was rolled into his. By 11:15, the coach's kidney was being transplanted to the waiting outfielder. By 4 p.m., both were out of surgery, out of recovery, and back in their own rooms. All of the initial indicators that Kevin's body would accept the kidney were going well. Both are on schedule to be released from Emory in one week's time.

"Both surgeries went very well," lead surgeon Dr. Kenneth Newell said Monday afternoon. "We are pleased with how each patient is progressing. We expect each will recover fully."

Walter hopes to be back on the practice field in a week and plans to be in the dugout when Wake Forest opens its season at LSU on Feb. 18, though he admits he "won't be jumping up and chasing after the umpires just yet."

Doctors have told the Jordans that Kevin should be able to swing a bat again in about six weeks. In a perfect world, he would be back in Winston-Salem for the summer semester and back in the outfield for fall practice. To his family and his coach, a little less than a perfect world would still be just fine.

"Kevin even showing up on our campus was a courageous act on his part, certainly far more courageous than I'm doing," Walter said last week, later adding, "Certainly Kevin and I are going to forever be joined at the hip."

Actually, they're even closer.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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