The New York Times
February 9, 2011
Wake Forest Baseball Coach Donates Kidney to Player
By MIKE TIERNEY
ATLANTA — When Wake Forest offered him a baseball scholarship, outfielder Kevin Jordan focused his research on what any high school athlete would: the opportunity for playing time.
His father, Keith, had another set of priorities: Who is this coach, Tom Walter? Will he look out for my son?
Keith Jordan dug back to the coach’s previous tenure at the University of New Orleans. He discovered that, even though Hurricane Katrina had left Walter’s home in 12 feet of water, attention to his team’s needs never wavered.
Walter supervised the players’ temporary relocation to the campus of New Mexico State. And he vowed to assist anyone weighing a transfer to another college.
“A lot of coaches wouldn’t have done that,” Jordan said Wednesday.
Far fewer would do what Walter did this week: donate a kidney to a player. Among the many questions Jordan had posed about the coach, one had never occurred to him: Would he part with a vital organ if his son needed it?
“Any player on the team, past or present,” Walter said during a good-news conference at Emory University Hospital, two days after surgeons transferred one of his kidneys into Kevin Jordan.
The coach and the player sat in front of cameras and microphones at a table bedecked with Wake Forest caps — a scene reminiscent of the day last week when football recruits across the nation wore the hats of the colleges they had chosen.
This event was different, distinguished by the white-coated surgeons who flanked the athlete — and by the player’s periodic wincing from the fresh, deep incision in his right side.
“I didn’t ask,” said Jordan, a freshman from Columbus, Ga., who was not a transplant match with family members. “He volunteered. I’m just really thankful.”
Walter’s sacrifice was no surprise to the man who hired him at Wake Forest.
“He loves his players so much, it is unique,” Athletic Director Ron Wellman said by telephone from Winston-Salem, N.C. He, too, had looked into how Walter, 42, treated his players after Katrina. Wellman concluded, “It was remarkable.”
Speaking at Emory on Wednesday, the coach’s mother, Ann Walter, said: “He has a soft spot in his heart for kids. They are like family. He always stuck up for people that didn’t have the advantages he had.”
In high school, Walter sat during lunchtime with a special education student who was picked on by others and threatened to punch anyone who was tempted to be a bully.
Walter enjoyed his college days at Georgetown so much that he said the thought of Jordan sitting in a dorm room tethered at least eight hours daily to a dialysis machine — as Jordan was last semester — was unacceptable.
“It just breaks your heart,” Walter said.
He said that his motivation in donating a kidney was not getting back Jordan as a player, but giving him “just a chance to be a college freshman.”
“I couldn’t believe what he had endured,” Walter said. “It was obvious to me this was the right thing to do from Day 1.”
That day arrived last fall, soon after Jordan, 19, was found to have ANCA vasculitis, a rare kidney disorder resulting from autoimmune swelling. The diagnosis took months to pin down.
Keith Jordan recalled one of many unsettling days at the hospital when his cellphone rang with what would customarily be a joyous call. Given the frightening uncertainty of his son’s health, it barely registered when the Yankees informed him that they had selected his son in the 19th round of the amateur draft.
Kevin Jordan managed to pass all his classes in his first term and practice with the team when he did not have to be on a dialysis machine. His power and speed were noticeably lacking from what Walter had seen during his recruiting trips to Columbus.
In qualifying as a donor match, Walter, a father of a son and a daughter, beat odds of about 7 to 1, according to Dr. Kenneth Newell, who handled the first half of the transplant. Assured that he could resume a normal lifestyle — the original kidney donor in 1954, Newell said Wednesday, lived until last year — and aware that Jordan could languish on a national donor list for up to five years, Walter said he never thought twice about his pledge.
Newell and Dr. Allan Kirk, who operated on Jordan, said that medical advances have increased the success rate of matches and transplants.
A recipient, Kirk said, “receives an extra 10 years of life” over a dialysis patient. “Kevin should live a life that is normal in activity and normal in length,” he said.
Their story has resonated across the country, nowhere more movingly than in Dallas. In 2007, in an action that received widespread publicity, the retired Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls donated a kidney to ex-teammate Ron Springs.
“That was amazing,” an ebullient Walls said by phone Wednesday of Walter’s donation. “Just amazing.”
Walls said he was especially impressed that, unlike he and Springs, Walter and Jordan were members of different age and racial groups.
The transplant raised the inevitable question of whether Wake Forest violated an N.C.A.A. rule by providing an “extra benefit” to an athlete, defined as a special arrangement not made available to other university students. Wake Forest’s Wellman acknowledged that an extra benefit was indeed conferred.
“No doubt about that,” he said. “I dare anyone to challenge this benefit.”
Erik Christianson, director of public and media relations for the N.C.A.A., said: “We wish Coach Walter and Kevin Jordan all the best. This wonderful act of compassion and generosity is truly extraordinary, beyond the scope of any rule.”
Walter said, “We answer to a higher calling on this one.” He said he plans to attend practice this week and to fill out the lineup card at the season opener Feb. 18.
Jordan can expect to pick up a bat in eight weeks for practice swings, Kirk said.
“I’m definitely going to play hard for Coach,” Jordan said. “I can’t say no to him. I’ve got his body part in me.”