Feb. 8, 2011

click here for Tom Walter tribute by Joe Michalski

click here for audio of Sean Ryan on Robert Wuhl Show

The Ultimate Save

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Everything seemed so normal last Monday as Wake Forest players reported to practice.


Little did they know, Coach Tom Walter (left) had been keeping a secret that was about to change things forever.


As the Demon Deacons were preparing to scrimmage, Wake Forest’s second-year coach summoned his team.


“He called a group meeting, you never know what to expect when a coach calls a meeting at the beginning of practice,” junior pitcher Austin Stadler said. “When he announced [the meeting], we thought we did something wrong.”


Walter began telling his team what only a very few knew: he was about to make the ultimate sacrifice in trying to pick up the biggest save of his career. The coach, who guided his University of New Orleans program through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, stood before the Demon Deacons and shared his decision to donate a kidney to freshman outfielder Kevin Jordan (right).


“Most of the players had no idea what to say,” Stadler said. “We were shocked.”


Added Demon Deacons assistant coach Dennis Healy: “They were pretty overwhelmed. I don’t think they even knew it was on the docket…A lot of guys just went up and put their arms around Coach.”


Yesterday, one week after telling his team about his intentions, Walter underwent surgery at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital to remove his kidney, which was then transplanted to Jordan. According to Healy, by noon, Walter’s father Ralph was reporting the coach was doing well but was a little groggy. Later Monday night, Healy and Walter traded seven or eight texts about what was happening at practice back in Winston-Salem.


Jordan was still in surgery around lunch time, but Healy said that Wake Forest administrators reported later in the day that the outfielder was doing well.


“You always hear of a coach who tells you they’ll do anything for you, and he put that into action today,” Stadler said. “The fact that our coach would do that for one of his players was very humbling to me and the whole team as well.”


The road to today actually started months ago.


According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Jordan was diagnosed with ANCA vasculitis last April while he was a senior at Northside High School in Columbus, Ga. He began losing weight and by August, his kidney function was less than 10 percent.


By the time he arrived on Wake Forest’s campus, Jordan wasn’t able to do much on the baseball field.


“One of the best guys in the country heading into his senior year and not even be able to participate… it’s pretty remarkable,” Healy said. “He didn’t complain once.”


In addition to the typical freshman class load, Jordan’s first semester of college was filled with 12- to 14-hour dialysis treatments a day. Thirty pounds lighter than before his diagnosis, Jordan dropped by practice as often as he could, occasionally shagging a few fly balls.


 “It just shows how determined he is as a person,” Stadler said. “I had heard he had dialysis 14 hours a day, but he still managed to do his homework and come by practice. It just says a lot about his character.”


Jordan’s character didn’t go unnoticed by Walter, who had informed Jordan’s parents he’d consider being a donor.


“It started as the first semester ended when his brother and his mother weren’t good matches,” Healy said.


Healy, the former head coach at Marist who played at George Washington while Walter was an assistant for the Colonials and has assisted Walter at George Washington and New Orleans, said that Walter went through a preliminary test right after Christmas.


Healy and fellow assistant coach Bill Cilento were in Cilento’s office one day right before the players reported back for the spring semester when Walter entered.


“He said, ‘Look, I need to tell you guys something. I passed the first series of tests to be a kidney donator for KJ,’” Healy said.


For the next several weeks, only a select few knew of Walter’s plan, including the assistant coaches, a few Wake Forest administrators and Jordan and his parents.


More tests followed. And in the middle of the first day of practice in late January, Walter received a call from Emory University Hospital that confirmed he was a match.


“To be honest, I wasn’t really shocked,” Healy said. “It came to fruition when they said he was a qualified donor. He said, ‘It’s a done deal, I’m doing it.’ Am I surprised that he did it? No, not really.”


Bruce Peddie, who assisted Walter at New Orleans and took the head job when Walter departed for Wake Forest, agreed.


“If you knew Tom like I know him, this isn’t a surprise at all,” Peddie said. “That’s been his demeanor ever since I’ve known him.”


And Peddie has known Walter since his high school days at Johnstown High School in Johnstown, Pa., when Peddie recruited him to play for him at Mansfield University (Pa.). When Walter decided to attend prep school before enrolling at Georgetown, Peddie remembers the teenager breaking the news in a nice letter.


About 10 years later, Peddie recruited against Walter when he was the coach at Shippensburg University and Walter was at George Washington, where he spent eight seasons averaging 39 wins a year. Peddie then joined Walter at New Orleans, where Walter guided the Privateers to NCAA tournament appearances on the field and through life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina off the field – including packing up and relocating to New Mexico State for the fall semester.   


Peddie, who joined Walter at UNO for three seasons starting in 2007, said Walter always impressed him when talking with the parents of players.


“One of the things that always stuck with me, Tom would say, baseball was 3, academics was 2 and the first thing was being able to take care of your kid,” Peddie said.


On Monday, Walter proved what he has preached for years.


The Demon Deacons’ skipper won’t be able to coach from the third-base box – which Peddie said will drive him nuts – but he’s hoping to be in uniform when Wake Forest opens at LSU. As for Jordan, the hope is that he will recover fully and be able to use the spring to get back into playing shape.


Theirs is a secret no more. And things may never be quite the same.


“It definitely brings us together,” Stadler said. “You’ve got to have respect for your coach if you want to win the close games… his players will do just about anything for him now.”


(head shots courtesy of WFU Media Relations Office, action shots by Brian Westerholt of Sports on Film)