Coach Takes One for the Team

Gary Libman
Published: Spring 2011

In January 2010, the New York Yankees were courting an extraordinarily talented high school senior named Kevin Jordan. Instead of going pro, however, the swift, power-hitting, outfielder decided he would enroll at Wake Forest University and join its baseball team, donning the pinstripes immediately.

When Jordan chose college over career, he didn’t know that he would soon be gravely ill, requiring a kidney transplant. Also he had yet to meet his new baseball coach, Tom Walter, GWSB MBA, ’94.

This past February, the Wake Forest University coach, who once coached GW’s baseball team, gave Jordan his kidney.

“I would have donated a kidney to any member of our team. If there was a player from 10 years ago, and I was a match, I would have given him a kidney," said Walter. “This is something I think anybody would do for a family member.“

The Journey Begins

It was early in 2010 that Jordan—still in high school— noticed his energy waning. His speed and power on the baseball field diminished. He was diagnosed with the flu, but he didn’t improve.

So in April, Jordan and his family visited Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. There it was discovered that he suffered from ANCA vasculitis, a rare disease in which the immune system attacks parts of the body, leading to kidney failure. Jordan was told that his kidneys were functioning at only 15 to 20 percent of their ability.

That summer, Jordan was on dialysis three times a week. But that didn’t dampen his determination to attend Wake Forest. On Aug. 23, the same day he officially enrolled at the university in Winston-Salem, N.C., Jordan and his parents met Dr. Barry Freedman at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Coach Walter, himself new to Wake Forest, joined them.

Before that meeting, Walter did not realize the seriousness of Jordan’s condition: The young athlete’s kidneys were operating at only 8 percent efficiency. Walter, 42, volunteered to be tested as a possible donor should Jordan need a kidney.

Jordan’s condition worsened and, as school began in the fall of 2010, he was spending at least eight hours a day connected to a dialysis machine in his dorm room. Despite this, Jordan passed all his classes and turned up at team practices when he could. Although he was at Wake Forest on a scholarship, his inability to play did not jeopardize that.

After no compatible donor was found among Jordan’s family members, they turned to Walter. He underwent testing and, on Jan. 28, 2011, the first day of spring training, the coach learned that he was a match.

The coach said he was inspired by Jordan’s courage. “For him to be a freshman, not know anybody on campus, and be in his [dormitory] room on dialysis, I think took incredible…courage," Walter explained

Two With Pluck

Walter had pluck of his own. Four days after the February kidney transplant, the coach attended his first team practice of the season. He spent 45 minutes on the home field talking to players about hitting and batting practice before fatigue prompted him to head to the press box to watch the workout.

“I didn’t do a whole lot. Just made a showing," said Walter, who served as assistant baseball coach at GW from 1992-1994 and returned as head coach from 1997-2004, compiling a 275-184 record— the winningest in GW baseball history.

A week later, buoyed by his first practice, Walter bounded out of the dugout to question an umpire at Wake Forest’s opening game at Louisiana State University. “But the pain in my body grabbed me and said, ’Wait a minute, you’d better slow down.' So I walked gingerly to the umpire.”

Within days, Walter caught himself bellowing at a base runner, and he knew he was on the mend. “That comes from your belly, your gut. I wasn’t as vocal or as loud or as energetic as I usually am, but I could still perform the duties," he explained.

The coach still tires easily, but he said fatigue, discomfort and the inability to pitch batting practice or hit fly balls to his outfielders were a small price for helping Jordan.

When the donation was announced, Walter, who coached at the University of New Orleans from 2005-09 and moved to Wake Forest in mid 2010, became a national celebrity. Journalists covering the story could not remember another college coach donating a kidney to a player.

After the transplant at Emory University Hospital, Walter and Jordan held a news conference for about 65 reporters. Over the next few days, Walter sat through some two dozen interviews—at least 22 more than usual at the start of a baseball season—for outlets from CNN to the CBS Evening News. Before his team’s opening game at Louisiana, 10,000 LSU fans stood and cheered him.

More important to Walter than the recognition, however, was a feeling that he’d sent a powerful message about belonging to a team. “When we recruit our guys," he said, “we talk about family, and we talk about making sacrifices for one another. It’s something we take very seriously.”

“I’m really thankful," Jordan said at a press conference. “I don’t think I have the words for it in my vocabulary, but thankful as it gets.“ Jordan recuperated at home in Columbus, Ga. He passed on additional media attention, but he and Walter texted frequently and talked by phone several times a week. Three weeks after the operation, Jordan was walking two miles a day.

Although illness forced Jordan to withdraw from school after his first semester, and prevented him from playing his first college baseball season, his recuperation was designed to recapture lost ground. That included attendance at Wake Forest’s summer school.

“We’ll get him with our strength coach and get back some of the [20 pounds] he lost,” Walter said. “He’ll be a fully participating member of our team by August.”

Jordan’s goal is to regain the form that prompted the New York Yankees to select him in the 19th round of the baseball free-agent draft.

Medical experts said healthy donors face little short-term or long-term risk, although they usually require pain medication for a few weeks after returning home, and their energy level stays below par for six to eight weeks. Walter was aware of this but, he said, with the support of his wife, son, daughter, baseball team, athletic director and his university, he wasn’t anxious about the operation.

Not the First Time

Jordan’s kidney failure was not the first time Walter was faced with an unexpected team drama. After he left GW, he coached five seasons at the University of New Orleans. Walter hadn’t been at the job long when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city in August 2005.

“He’s fearless in the sense of adjusting to challenging situations. The first thing he faced when he went to New Orleans was the flood in September 2005," said Ed McKee, director of athletic alumni programs at GW and Walter’s friend of 20 years.

The University of New Orleans was deluged, Walter’s wife and two children were with her parents in Michigan and coach’s house was under “at least eight feet” of water. (He was later forced to gut it and sell it at a significant loss.) But Walter’s focus was on his players. Using his parents‘ Virginia home as a headquarters, he scrambled to reunite his team at New Mexico State University, which had offered to cover team members‘ housing and tuition.

That’s when another GWSB alumnus, Walter’s friend W. Russell Ramsey, BBA, ’81, stepped in. Ramsey, who is chairman of the GW Board of Trustees, provided his corporate jet so Walter could travel to Baton Rouge and pick up as many players as could make it there. When they boarded the jet headed to New Mexico, the players found that Ramsey had stocked it with clothing and supplies.

Those who know Walter have not been surprised by his decisions during difficult times.

“If you’d told me that somebody on his team was in dire need of a kidney, and asked me ’What were the chances he would donate a kidney?' I would have said that the chances were pretty good,“ says Frank Cerullo, BBA, ’02, and MSIST, ’02, who played for Walter at GW in 2000 and 2001.

“I remember once when a player was in trouble in his personal life. We were trying to find him and the coach asked a number of us to sit with him and wait for the guy,“ said Cerullo, CEO of GameWear Inc. in Hoboken, N. J. “Ultimately the player was fine. When the coach talked about it the next day, he teared up.

“I would imagine that the thing that gets people to choose to play at his school is the sense that Tom’s a good person who really cares about you," Cerullo continued. “I think it comes across very quickly.“ Tony Dokoupil, BBA, ’03, played for the Colonials under Walter from 2000-2003. He also noticed the way Walter relates to players.

“On the whole, I think he’s a talented coach, not because he’s a great on-the-field general but because he changes the feeling that people have as members of his team,” said Dokoupil, now a reporter for Newsweek magazine. “It’s hard to put your finger on how he does that, but it’s palpable when you’re on a team he coaches.”

Gregg Ritchie, the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and former minor league baseball player, has known Walter since his days as GW’s head coach. “When I heard he was going to donate the kidney, it didn’t surprise me," Ritchie says. “I already loved the guy for who he is, and I love him even more for what he did.” GW