Wake’s Tom Walter: Coach once donated a kidney to player who needed it

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 1, 2023

By Eric Olson

AP Sports Writer

Strange as it seems, the baseball part in Wake Forest coach Tom Walter’s career often has been relegated to a secondary role.

Walter has won more than 800 games in 27 seasons and is the rare coach to lead three schools to the NCAA Tournament. Now consider that he donated a kidney to one of his players 12 years ago, an act that a decade later inspired the formation of a nonprofit organization focused on social justice.

Or that when he was at New Orleans, he brought together his displaced players and moved them 1,100 miles away to New Mexico State for classes and fall practices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That team went on to post the program’s first winning record in four years.

Or maybe look at his George Washington program in the early 2000s, which was underfunded and on the verge of being dropped as it played home games on a field 10 miles from campus. He met those challenges while holding his team together as the nation’s capital was reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks and the terror of the D.C. sniper slayings.

All that has led to Walter having what could be a once-in-a-career team. The Demon Deacons (47-10) are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and five of their players are projected to be taken in the first four rounds of the amateur draft.

“They’ll be a great story a lot of people will be rooting for because it’s been so long since Wake Forest has been a nationally prominent baseball program,” said Paul Mainieri, the retired LSU coach who became friends with Walter during their time together in the Bayou State and recommended him for the Deacons’ job in 2009.

His team notwithstanding, Walter himself is easy to root for.

“When you think about all the things that happened along the way, things that could have totally sidetracked a career and sent it a different direction, I’m so grateful for all the people who stepped up to make sure I could continue this journey,” he said.

Walter grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and played catcher and outfield for Georgetown from 1988-91. He went into coaching, he said, as a way to serve others.

Kevin Jordan, undoubtedly, is the greatest beneficiary of Walter’s selflessness. He was a major league prospect who had a serious yet-to-be-diagnosed kidney disease when he arrived at Wake Forest in the fall of 2010. He needed a transplant, but no one in his family was a match.

Walter volunteered to be tested and offered Jordan one of his kidneys when he was found to be a suitable donor. The transplant was performed Feb. 7, 2011, and both men have had few, if any, complications.

“We look at these players like they’re part of my family,” Walter said. “When somebody in your family needs something, you give it to them. I tell people all the time it was the best decision I’ve ever made. What I got in return is more valuable than what I gave.”

Jordan ended up playing 124 games from 2011-15. He’s now a high school baseball coach and a teacher at a middle school about 15 minutes from the Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salem. Had he not received Walter’s kidney, Jordan said, it would be a “toss-up” whether he would be alive.

“I would say for sure I wouldn’t have been able to play college baseball,” Jordan said, “and that was one of my dreams since I was 12.”

Walter, who is white, said he often was asked how it was medically possible for him to be able to donate an organ to Jordan, who is Black. Walter’s response: “My blood and his blood are the same. That’s all that matters.”

During the 2020 summer of racial unrest following the death of George Floyd, Walter and Jordan worked together to found the nonprofit “Get In the Game.” The organization gives participants resources to address social justice through conversations and service projects. It operates in schools and youth organizations throughout North Carolina as well as in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Walter’s Wake Forest teams also have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities and have had 100% player participation in community service for nine straight years. The team took a service trip to the Dominican Republic in 2012.

“It is so awesome to see him having success,” said Cincinnati Reds outfielder Stuart Fairchild, who played at Wake Forest from 2015-17. “I got an opportunity to play my freshman year with Kevin Jordan, the player who coach Walter donated his kidney to. That’s a testament to the kind of guy he is. He’s always putting his players above everything else.”

The Deacons are the most complete team in the nation with a pitching staff that has a 2.72 ERA, an offense batting a combined .304 with 104 home runs and a defense that ranks in the top 30.

They haven’t lost consecutive games and are the only team to come out of the regular season with fewer than 10 losses.

“The thing that has been the most pleasing about being around this team is how much these guys care about each other and how much fun they have,” Walter said. “They have great energy, they care about the program, they are invested in winning.”

With staff ace Rhett Lowder projected to be among the top 10 draft picks, Wake Forest now has its best chance to make the College World Series since it won the national title in 1955.