I got to watch Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter in action this week. Turns out he wears a baseball uniform like anyone else. He has two arms, and two legs, and ten fingers, two eyes, a nose. And one kidney.
What happened to the other one? It’s a funny story. He recruited a player who was pretty good, good enough to be drafted by the Majors. Coach Walters told him that at Wake Forest, everyone was family, that everyone looked after one another and that he would take this player, Kevin Jordan, under his wing and treat him like his own son. All the usual D-1 bullshit.
Kevin signs with Wake Forest, turning down a million dollar offer from the Yankees en route. But before he gets to campus, he starts to get sick. When he starts his freshman year, he’s on dialysis several hours a day. He’s too weak to play ball and he’s barely getting through school. He needs a transplant. He has not played one inning for the Deacons. But when Kevin’s parents fail to pass a screen for donation, coach Walter volunteers. Turns out, he’s a match. He donates a kidney to Kevin.
Some can see this as a racial issue; this blog noted that coach Walter is white and Jordan is black:
“The coach talked to USA Today before the operation. ‘When we recruit our guys, we talk about family and making sacrifices for one another,’ he said. ‘It is something we take very seriously. I had the support of my family, Wake Forest and my team. To me it was a no-brainer.’”
On most baseball teams, a sacrifice is when you make an out intentionally with the purpose of moving a base runner. On coach Walter’s team, he might be asking something deeper on your part.
Coach Walter has made me rethink what it means to be a coach, and how far I can take it. My mental model of a college coach is someone who recruits the best players possible in order to create a winning program. With that success, he promotes himself and seeks the attention of ever-larger universities that pay better, with more scholarships to offer, to attract better recruits so he can hop to the next rung. Moving up, he leaves his players behind, promises broken because “you have to take care of your family” and “you can’t say no to an offer like that.” These coaches promise anything, swear they create a community of care and support, then jump for a new car and fancy weight room. Enter Tom Walter.
He has shown me that I can try and coach at any level and not have to worry about becoming a chameleon that blends in with the current practices. New coaches are hired when the people running the program want to see a change. Yet they often restrict their search to coaches with lots of experience, who are known quantities, and aren’t really going to bring many surprises.
And a new coach will often actually hunker down and not try anything radical, instead desperately focusing on trying to win right away and show “results.” When the colleges or clubs hire known quantities looking for change, they are just pounding down the same cattle path as their predecessors. When coaches take jobs and push the same buttons they always have, it can’t be a surprise they get the same results.
I am not a churchy person. I believe that faith, like altruism, is fine for people to have as long as they keep it to themselves. Coach Walter is a man of faith and I can’t fault him for it. In fact, he’s taken the high road before, placing community and concern for his players above his own personal well-being. He cares about his players above and beyond the season, beyond the sport. He was coaching in New Orleans when Katrina hit. The AP had the best coverage of his latest act, tying it in with his previous exploits:
“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.’”
Can you imagine being a baseball coach when a hurricane destroys the city? The natural reaction is “wow, that’s terrible for me. I got to get out of here and find a team.” Instead, this guy is thankful it happened to him, and he stayed to help his players. The story goes on:
“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.’”
I don’t think any of us believe that a team like Wake Forest will be more successful on the field because of this coach’s actions. If a player couldn’t hit a curve ball before, he’s not going to be able to hit it now. A pitcher’s fast ball is not going to pick up any speed, and the outfielders aren’t going to get to fly balls any better. In fact I watched them lose badly to a Virginia Tech team that outplayed them in every facet of the game.
But, this coach is creating something here that will serve these young men throughout their lives. I believe they will perform better in adversity, on and off the field. These players will be better coaches themselves. I think their reunions will be more heartfelt. For the rest of their lives, every time one of these guys picks up a baseball he will remember what it was like to be on this team. They will not remember Wake Forest baseball just as a time they played a sport, it will be something much more profound. They will know the difference between a commitment and a covenant.
I can’t even imagine the how Athletic Director is going to measure Walter and his success right now. To me, he has turned the standard way of doing business inside-out. The team is below .500 for the season so far. I wonder if his job is in jeopardy. And if he gets fired, does he get to ask for his kidney back?
The question I have is, how can this story change how I coach and work with people in my regular job? How much am I willing to give to my players, and to my employees? And if I were able to give something valuable to one of them with no hope of recompense, to truly give with the expectation of nothing in return, how far would I have the courage to go, and how would it change me?