Last Thursday night, Tom Walter got in his car and began a 300-mile drive from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Atlanta. Wake Forest's baseball coach is well-acquainted with the rhythms of the road in general, and this stretch of highway in particular.
The road to Atlanta runs through small towns like Kings Mountain and Lavonia and Startex, towns where Walter and his coaches sift through the best local talent, looking for that one gem, that perfect fit. Most of the kids he meets along this highway go on to other schools, other lives. But a few come to Wake Forest, and those that do, become family.
On this Thursday night, though, Walter wasn't going to offer a kid a scholarship.
You know how the story starts. You've seen it a thousand times, in movies and TV shows and maybe, if you're lucky, in real life. Kid gets a scholarship offer to play for a big-name school. Coach takes a liking to kid, treats him like family. Coach stands up for kid, gives kid a chance that no one else could or would. So far, so routine, right?
That’s where this story takes a turn. The kid in this story is a baseball player from Columbus, Georgia, named Kevin Jordan. Recruited by Walter and his assistants to play ball for the Demon Deacons, the rangy outfielder first visited Winston-Salem possessed of rare confidence for a prep athlete. Part of that surely came from the fact that he was good enough to draw the attention of the nexus of the baseball universe –- the Yankees selected him in the 19th round last year -- but part comes from some deeper reservoir of calm.
A 2010 high school graduate, Jordan spent most of the spring of his senior year sick with what everyone told him was the flu. While his classmates were skipping class and counting down the days until graduation, Jordan was steadily losing weight and strength. After he dropped 30 pounds, his family took him to Emory University Hospital for tests. What they learned devastated them, shattering dreams of major-league stardom.
Kevin Jordan has ANCA vasculitis, a disease in which his own white blood cells began attacking his own tissues. Soon after the diagnosis, his kidneys began to fail, and by last summer, Jordan was on dialysis three times per week.
And still the disease marched on. In August, right about the time he began attending classes at Wake, doctors determined that Jordan's kidney function was down to 8 percent. They recommended an immediate transplant.
Far, far easier prescribed than done. A kidney donation requires a match, and no one in Jordan's family matched up. Jordan was looking at joining the national registry. The United Network for Organ Sharing indicates that in 2009, 16,829 kidney transplants were performed in the United States, but nearly 86,000 people await a kidney, with a median wait time of four years. Those weren’t favorable odds for someone in Kevin’s condition.
The disease didn't wait, however, and it didn't respect Jordan's new surroundings. With the assistance of Wake Forest trainer Jeff Strahm, Jordan learned how to perform the dialysis on himself, and by August 2010, he was on the machine 18 to 20 hours a day.
It was right around that time when Coach Walter decided he ought to get tested.
“The simple fact that he showed up on campus demands so much respect,” Walter says. “For an 18-year-old kid to go through what he's gone through and just be on campus is an amazing story in itself. The level of commitment and sacrifice on his part demands the same from the people around him.”
This is one of those stories that could get drenched in sentimentalism, a tale that could be wrapped in evocative music and soft-focus, slow-pan camera work. It works, doesn't it? Coach learns he's a match and offers up his kidney for this kid he barely knows. This will be a heartwarming segment on half a dozen sports news channels before Memorial Day.
And that’s just fine. Lord knows we need stories of college coaches willing to give everything for their kids, rather than just ride them for two, three, four years and turn them out in favor of a new crop. People will hear of Tom Walter’s story, they’ll be amazed by it and him, and he’s cool with all that.
Just don’t go expecting him to think it’s anything special.
“This is something I would have done for any of my ballplayers,” he said. “There's not a kid on this
team, or a kid that I've ever coached, that I wouldn’t have done this for.”
If you think that’s just him saying that, maybe you should get to know Tom Walter a bit better.
Walter had some game of his own: A 1991 graduate of Georgetown, he was a four-year starter at catcher and outfield, a team captain, and a member of the 1991 Big East All-Academic team. As a coach, he set George Washington University’s record for wins with 275 against 124 losses. And by 2005, after coaching his alma mater for eight seasons, he’d taken the reins at the University of New Orleans.
2005. New Orleans. You see where this is going.
When Katrina hit, Walter gathered his team together and moved his base of operations 1,100 miles west, to Las Cruces, New Mexico. He struck a deal with New Mexico State University for his team to play in the fall semester there, and in the spring semester, the team lived out of hotel rooms in Mobile, Alabama.
“Our No. 1 goal all along was to keep the kids on pace for graduation,” he says. “We also wanted to keep the program moving forward. UNO baseball had such a great tradition, and I didn't want it to die on my watch.”
That season, despite calling three different states home, the team won 30 games for the first time in a decade. He spent five years at UNO before getting the call from Wake Forest in 2009.
A man stands by his team. It really is that simple.
To determine if you’re a kidney donation match, you need to undergo a battery of tests that can take more than a month. Fail even one of the tests, and you’re out. And every step along the way is another chance to bail, to decide that maybe you’re not quite so noble and self-sacrificing after all.
Starting five days before Christmas, Walter underwent cross-match testing, chest x-rays, CT scans and blood pressure monitoring. He passed every test, and on January 28, doctors proclaimed him a match for kidney donation.
Six days later, after clearing his decision with his family, his team and his school, he was on the road to Atlanta.
“I never once questioned the decision [to donate] from the beginning,” he says. “I got frustrated with the process, but never once said to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ In fact, it was the complete opposite. I would have been extremely disappointed for Kevin if I wasn't a match. It wasn't the 12th hour, but he was running out of options.”
Any time you’re talking organ transplant, you’re talking significant risk. The NKF estimates that the five-year survival rate for a transplant from a living donor is about 90 percent, but many live for decades more.
But it’s best not to think of the math that’s involved when you're talking about a college kid. Rather, focus on what he can do with the time he’s been given.
Both Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott returned to play in the NBA after kidney transplants, so it’s possible Jordan could return to the diamond. It’ll be months before he’s well enough to play at any competitive level. “It’s something that Kevin really wants, and I want it for him,” Walter says. “Nobody knows if he'll be able to play or not, but obviously, that's not the most important thing right now.”
For Walter, the prospects for recovery are more favorable. He should be able to get back to normal activities within the month. “I don't know how long it’ll be before I can swing a fungo bat or coach third base,” he says. “Not right away, let's put it that way.”
Monday morning, while everyone else in the sporting world was still debating Aaron Rodgers, tiny Vader and the Black Eyed Peas, Walter and Jordan went under the knife. Doctors took Walter into the operating room at 8:00 a.m, and Jordan followed 90 minutes later. The procedure began at 11:15, and 45 minutes later, Walter's role was done. By 4:00, Jordan was resting in his own room at Emory University Hospital.
“Both surgeries went very well,” Dr. Kenneth Newell, lead surgeon on the removal procedure, said afterward. “We are pleased with how each patient is progressing. We expect each will recover fully.”
Eight hours. That’s all it took. And now it’s done. Everyone’s moving on together. Everyone's around to move on together. That’s exactly how Coach Walter wants it, exactly how it ought to be.