ATLANTA — There they sat, side by side, the baseball coach and his freshman outfielder, adorned in matching black-and-gold warmup suits.
Thankfully, the attire wasn’t their only match.
Even though his right side was still tender and sore, Kevin Jordan hasn’t felt this good since last February, when a mysterious illness began sapping his strength and eventually caused his kidneys to shut down.
To his right was Wake Forest coach Tom Walter, who has always considered his players to be like family. No one will ever doubt the sincerity of those words. Not after he gave up one of his healthy kidneys so the 19-year-old Jordan would have a shot at a normal, healthy life.
“I’m just really thankful,” the teenager said at a news conference Wednesday, two days after the coach’s kidney was transplanted in him at Emory University Hospital. “This is as good as it gets. I don’t have words for it right now.”
Walter had volunteered to be tested after he learned of Jordan’s illness, which forced Jordan to hook up to a dialysis machine for nine hours each night. As it became more likely Walter’s kidney might be needed, the Wake Forest compliance officer checked with the NCAA to make sure there were no violations of the extra benefits rule.
Not that Walter would have let the threat of probation stop him.
“I talked it over with our athletic director (Ron Wellman), and he probably said it best when he said we were answering to a higher calling on this one,” Walter said.
Jordan’s mother and brother weren’t compatible for a transplant, and his father wasn’t even eligible because he has high blood pressure. Walter, it turned out, was a match. When he got the news last month, he never wavered on his decision to give up a part of himself so Jordan would have a chance at a long, healthy life.
“I didn’t want Kevin to wait one more day if I could help it,” Walter said.
Without a living donor willing to donate a kidney, Jordan likely would have waited for three to five years for one to become available. That almost certainly would have ruined his dreams of reaching the major leagues.
Now, everything is back in play.
“Baseball was always there for me,” Jordan said. “As soon as my body agrees with me and I’m allowed to start playing, I’m going to start playing again.”
Dr. Allan Kirk, who took part in the 3½-hour transplant operation, said there’s no reason Jordan can’t be like any other player. He’ll have to wait about eight weeks before he can start swinging a bat, but assuming the kidney performs well and there’s no signs of rejection, he can count on being ready to go next season.
“He should live a life that is normal in activity, normal in length,” Kirk said. “His abilities should be back, sliding and all. Even reaching over the wall, he should be able to do that.”
Jordan felt anything but normal last February, when he began suffering from flulike symptoms. He would eventually lose 30 pounds off his sturdy, 198-pound frame, but he played on at Northside High School in Columbus, Ga., the pro scouts wondering quietly what was wrong.
He wasn’t as strong as he had been. He wasn’t as fast.
Doctors in his hometown couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Finally, Jordan’s parents took him to Atlanta, where he learned in June — shortly after his high school was eliminated from the state playoffs and before he left for Wake Forest — that he had ANCA vasculitis, a type of autoimmune swelling disorder caused by abnormal antibodies.
When those abnormalities show up in the kidneys, they can cause blood and protein to leak into the urine, leading to a shutdown. That’s what happened to Jordan. He enrolled at Wake Forest and went to classes during the fall semester. Baseball was out, though he would show up to take batting practice and shag flies when he felt well enough.
Walter agreed in August to be tested, unsure if he would be needed. Jordan was overwhelmed by his coach’s ultimate act of unselfishness.
“I didn’t even ask him,” the player said. “He asked me.”
The coach has always felt that sense of duty. Walter was at the University of New Orleans when the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He lived in a FEMA trailer at the baseball field and helped return the program to national prominence.
After moving to Wake Forest in 2009, he was again ready to answer the call when fate threw a curve.
“I do believe in divine intervention,” Walter said. “I was in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. I felt like I was meant to be there with those guys. Certainly, I was meant to be here with Kevin. I don’t feel like I’m a hero in any shape or form. This was just about doing the right thing.”
Sure, there were some reservations. Walter has two young children of his own, an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
“One of the things you think about is, what happens if one of your kids needs a kidney and you can’t provide it?” Walter said. “But you can’t worry about things like that. It’s like never leaving the house because you’re afraid you’ll get hit by a car. You can’t live like that.”
Then there were Jordan’s parents, dealing with having a once-healthy son depend on a machine to keep him alive.
“To see someone who had never been sick a day in his life get to the point where he doesn’t have any energy at all,” said Charlene Jordan, Kevin’s mother. “Now, to see him today, saying he feels like can go out and do the things he did before, what a relief.”
Walter expects to return home to North Carolina on Thursday. Jordan will likely be released as a day or two later.
Both have big plans.
For Walter, the season opener at LSU is less than two weeks away. He has every intention of being there.
“I feel fantastic,” the coach said. “I feel like if I had to get on that plane today to LSU, I could do it.”
As for Jordan, he hopes to get close to full strength by the summer, in time to hone his considerable skills during fall scrimmages. Then, next February, he can get started on his college career — a year behind schedule, but with a new sense of purpose.
“I’ll do whatever coach asks me to do,” said Jordan, who was drafted by the New York Yankees last summer. “If he wants me to get a bunt down, whatever, I can’t see myself saying no to anything.
“Part of his body is in mine now.”
After Walter and Jordan went back to their rooms Wednesday, the families hung out together again, comparing notes on two people who’ll forever share a special bond.
Keith Jordan mentioned that his son is a left-handed hitter who throws right handed.
“Really?” Walter’s sister Jennifer Christianson shot back. “Did you know that Tom bats left and throws right, too?”
She smiled, pondering their similarity.
“See, they’re a match,” Christianson said.
In so many ways.