Wake Forest baseball coach donates kidney to outfielder

By Ron Green Jr.
McClatchy Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When a coach says he would do anything for his players, it sounds like a cliche.

Then there is Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter.

Monday, Walter donated one of his healthy kidneys to Kevin Jordan, a Wake Forest freshman outfielder talented enough to be drafted in the 19th round by the New York Yankees last year but sick enough to wonder if he’d ever play again.

Surviving became Jordan’s challenge.

Walter and Jordan are recuperating together at Emory University in Atlanta, each with one healthy kidney and baseball in their futures.

“I wanted to help this young man,” Walter, 42, said on a conference call last week.

“When we recruit our guys, we talk about family and making sacrifices for one another. It’s something we take very seriously.”

When no one in Jordan’s family could give him what he needed, the baseball coach — for whom he’s never played a game — did.

“It’s something you can’t imagine,” said Keith Jordan, Kevin’s father. “Somebody mentioned divine intervention when you look at how we got to Wake Forest … it’s just one of those things you can’t express in words.”

Hired by Wake Forest on June 16, 2009, Walter and his staff had their first contact with Jordan 15 days later. A switch-hitting outfielder at Northside High in Columbus, Ga., Jordan was a hot prospect by the time he signed with the Deacons on Nov. 11, 2009.

Two months later, Jordan was diagnosed with the flu. Three months later, Jordan was 30 pounds lighter and struggling on the baseball field.

A visit to Emory University revealed Jordan was suffering from ANCA vasculitis, a condition caused by abnormal autoantibodies that attack cells and tissues. In Jordan’s case, it led to kidney failure.

With his kidneys functioning at 20 percent of their ability, Jordan was put on medication — 35 pills a day.

By summer, he was on dialysis three times a week.

Last August, Jordan decided to enroll at Wake Forest despite his illness, becoming a sick teenager away from home.

“Kevin showing up on our campus was a courageous act on his part. Far more courageous than anything I’m doing,” Walter said. “For him being a freshman, not knowing anyone on campus, having to be in his room on dialysis, took an incredible courage.”

Two days before fall classes began, Jordan, Walter and team trainer Jeff Strahm met with Dr. Barry Freedman, a nephrologist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Freedman told Jordan his kidney function was down to eight percent and explained a transplant was necessary.

While Jordan waited for a donor, attending practices but not participating, he attended classes, all of which he would pass.

“If you didn’t know he was sick, you’d never know he was,” teammate James Harris said. “He never seemed down.”

When testing Jordan’s family failed to find a compatible kidney donor, Walter volunteered to be tested. He passed the first stage in December, a second in early January. More tests followed to confirm the match.

“Most of the anxiety came because it was a waiting game,” Walter said. “I had made up my mind it was something I wanted to do. My biggest fear was I wouldn’t be able to do it. I would be disappointed.”

On Jan. 28, the Deacons were 30 minutes into their first practice of the spring when Walter, who doesn’t typically carry his cell phone to practice, got the call.

He was a match.

Eight days ago, Walter told Wake Forest athletics director Ron Wellman he wanted to donate his kidney to Jordan.

Wellman immediately offered his support.

Walter, the father of children ages 8 and 11, had already talked with his wife, Kirsten, and other family members about his decision.

“They were certainly stunned, I guess. It was out of left field,” Walter said. “Once they got past the initial shock, there was nothing but support.”

On the day he told Wellman, Walter called his baseball team together and told them what was happening. For a moment, the players sat quietly. Then they broke into applause.

“It was like, is this really happening?” Harris said.

If everything goes according to plan, Walter will be with his team Feb. 18 when the Deacons open the season at LSU.

Barring complications, Walter is a few weeks from doing the things he enjoys — running, playing with his kids, playing golf, and coaching third base. He knows living with one kidney has risks, but chooses not to dwell on them. “You can’t plan for that,” he said. “It’s like telling yourself you can’t leave the house because you might get hit by a car.”

Walter also understood what Jordan faced if he didn’t find a matching donor.

“I think it’s everybody’s first goal that Kevin have a normal life. Forget baseball for now. If he gets back on the field, that’s another story,” Walter said.

It’s possible that Jordan can swing a bat again in April. The plan is for him to be in summer school.

“It transcends baseball,” Harris, his teammate, said. “It’s an inspiration.”