Tom Walter on character, integrity and ‘The Gift’

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Wake Forest University Baseball Coach Tom Walter spoke about character, recruiting and his kidney donation to Kevin Jordan at the 2011 Summer Leadership Conference at The Homestead in Virginia on June 24. Following are excerpts from his remarks:

I was assigned the topic of character in athletics. The first thing I did was tried to look at it logically. I tried to define character in my own mind – words like moral compass, honesty, integrity, courage – all those words came to mind immediately. And then to take that a step further – maintaining those qualities under duress when it counts. To me, that’s what character is. To me it didn’t quite say it all, and I felt like I needed to add something to that before I came and spoke to you all today.

Taking ownership

So I was in my room last night. It was 3 a.m. or so and I was awake and probably a little nervous about this, certainly, but I do a lot of my best thinking at night. I usually sleep a couple of hours and then I’m up a couple of hours and then I sleep a couple of hours. As my assistants can tell you they get emails from me at 3 a.m. most every day, with general thoughts about the program or forwards and things like that. It’s my best thinking time. So last night I came up with a little saying on character that I think is pretty appropriate. I think character is taking ownership of who we are and also taking ownership of who we are not and using that difference to make a difference. And when we at Wake Forest talk to our players, we talk to them about ownership all the time, because in this world there are a lot of reasons to fail, a lot of excuses to fail but at the end of the day we want our players and our program to be judged on ourselves. When we walk away from the program we want to walk away with no regrets.

Athletics as a platform

So moving forward I don’t think there are more or less opportunities in athletics to display character. I think that in any profession there’s opportunities, any walk of life there’s opportunities, at home there’s opportunities every day to display character. But I do think athletics gives you an easy and obvious platform and a national platform to display character … a very public platform to demonstrate character. And that’s why in my mind it’s so important in athletics to have the right people because we’re given so many opportunities. It’s so important as coaches to make it our mission to not only display character ourselves, but to make sure that our players demonstrate character, to make sure we’re recruiting players with character and we’re instilling character into players.

So it’s our mission, and coincidentally it’s the mission here at Wake Forest as well and a mission they take very seriously.

Arriving at WFU to coach in the ACC

When I took the job at Wake Forest, I’m not going to lie to you here today and say I did it because Wake Forest was the greatest University in the world. I came to find out after the fact that it is. And I believe that truly. I took it because it was in the ACC. And the ACC is the best baseball conference in the country, and I had a chance to go coach against the best and take a team to Omaha and play in the College World Series. When I came to Wake Forest it was primarily to win games. However, what I came to find out here was that Wake Forest is an unbelievable place of tremendous integrity. And whether you’re a faculty member or staff or student at Wake Forest, you’re cared about as a person and I found that out very quickly.

President Nathan Hatch leads on character

And like in any organization or in any family, that leadership comes from the top and works its way down. And it obviously starts with Dr. (Nathan) Hatch for all of us. That character is important to Dr. Hatch permeates every decision he makes, every hire he makes, every opportunity he has to speak. When he eliminated the SAT scores that’s all about character. Isn’t what he’s saying to admissions: “Let’s look past the numbers and look at the person?” Isn’t that about character – eliminating the SAT scores? When he’s made some key hires in the program – and I haven’t been around that long so I haven’t heard many people from the University speak, but I’ve been fortunate to hear a couple of people speak – I’ve heard (Vice President) Andy Chan speak to our department. I’ve heard (departing Provost) Jill Tiefenthaler speak to our department. I walked away from both of those discussions so impressed by both of them and their vision for our students and the passion with which they spoke about our students and Wake Forest. I just walked away from there saying what an unbelievable hire that was, to steal Andy Chan and Jill Tiefenthaler. Unfortunately somebody stole her away from us, but that happens.

To take it one step further with Dr. Hatch, you know he’s had United Way come talk to us and that’s an impressive organization as well. You can tell Dr. Hatch surrounds himself with great people and great organizations.

Ron Wellman gets the big picture

Now, (Director of Athletics) Ron Wellman, (Hatch) didn’t hire, as you know. He inherited him. And most presidents in my dealings, the first thing they do when they get to a new place is they replace the athletics director. Obviously, Dr. Hatch did not do that …. I’m guessing it became very obvious to him very quickly that Ron Wellman was a man of great integrity who shared his same goals and his same mission for students at Wake Forest. And Ron Wellman is one of the reasons I took the job. Not only ACC baseball but Ron Wellman, his reputation around the country is just tremendous. I’ve worked for a few athletic directors. I’ve met dozens of athletic directors, but let me tell you I just can’t describe to you adequately enough how lucky we are to have Ron Wellman lead our athletic department. He’s a tremendous human being with a big heart who cares about it, and he gets it. He gets the big picture.

Wellman’s vow to Walter

When I sat down to ask Ron’s permission to make this gift to Kevin Jordan, Ron immediately asked, “Is this something you’ve decided to do? Is this something that’s important to you? Have you made up your mind it is?”

And I said, “Yes, I have. This is something that I feel very strongly about. I’ve done my homework. I’ve talked to everybody I’ve needed to talk to, and this is something I want to do.”

And he immediately put Wake Forest athletics aside. And number one he put his trust in me. He put trust in me that I made that decision with the right reasons and for the right reasons and that I had Wake Forest’s best interests at heart. The simple fact that he put trust in me says a lot about Ron Wellman and the confidence he has in the people he hires. He promised me and made a vow to me that “We’ll do everything we can to support you personally through this decision. Don’t worry about the team.”

Now, here’s a guy – we’re on the brink of my second season. Baseball’s very important to Ron. As you know, he’s a former coach and this was a big hire for him. He made a tough decision to bring me in. We’re two weeks from our season, and I’m coming in saying I’m going to have surgery to donate a kidney to one of my players and I don’t know how it’s going to affect my ability to coach this year. Ron didn’t worry about wins and losses. He said, “We’ve got the staff. You’ve got a great assistant coaching staff. We’ll get it done. Don’t worry about that. You take care of you personally and let us know what we can do to help.”

No place like Wake Forest

And I was just blown away by that. It was amazing. I don’t think there’s another place in the country where this thing could have happened other than Wake Forest University and working for Ron Wellman.

Recruiting and being “the closer”

That brings me to the reason I was asked here today. The Kevin Jordan story. When we recruit young men we talk about bringing them into our family. And we take that very, very seriously. I’m the closer. We bring recruits on campus. They’re with assistant coaches in the field, they’re with assistant coaches in a classroom, they’re with our players in the dorm room and they don’t really get to me until the very end. I don’t have a whole lot of conversation with them on the phone. I don’t have a whole lot of dealings with them at all. And we do that intentionally because when they sit in front of me we want that to be different. We want it to be special. So it’s my job to close the deal when these recruits sit in front of me.

The four goals for players

And I talk about having four goals for all our players.

Goal number one … is they get their degree. I tell them that’s first and foremost. Nothing we do comes before that. I’ll never ask you to miss a class for a practice or a weight-lifting session or a video session or anything like that. The degree comes first, and we’re going to give you the resources to be successful in the classroom. We’re not going to leave you out there on your own, but we’re also not going to hold your hand for all four years. You’ll get a lot of resources in the beginning, but along the way we’ll teach you how to use less and less of those resources and become more and more self-sufficient ….

Goal number two for all of our players we call our citizenship clauses, and that’s that they leave here better prepared to face the world – better human beings, better fathers, better sons, better employees, better employers, whether they’re President of the United States, a Major League baseball player or a garbage collector or anywhere in between – that you’re better prepared for that challenge. And we do a lot of community service, and we put a lot of trust in our guys. And I keep coming back to that word trust that (The Washington Post columnist E.J.) Dionne spoke so eloquently about that word last night – trust is the word that keeps coming back up in character.

So we talk about again making them self-sufficient. We have curfews for our guys – 12:00 at night, and we almost never check. The only time I check on 12 o’clock curfews is if I have something to say to the team, which I usually just text them anyway in this day and age. But sometimes I’ll just knock on the doors just to check in on everybody, but most of the time when we’re on the road we don’t check curfews because we trust our guys. They have the same goals that we have or they should.

Then, goal number three is making them better baseball players individually. And goal number four is winning.

A promise to parents to treat players like “our own”

And then as they’re leaving, we talk about Wake Forest, how special it is. I set it up this way on purpose. The athlete is invariably kind of the first one out the door, and I kind of hold the parents back a second. And I look the parents in both their eyes and I say to them, “If you trust our program with your son, I promise you that we’ll treat him like he’s our own. I promise you that.” And again there’s that word “trust,” and that’s kind of the parting word when they go out the door, the parting sentiment when they go out the door.

And I was surfing the net last night on my iPad about 3:05 a.m. and I came upon a quote which I think is fantastic. “Men of genius are admired. Men of wealth are envied. Men of power are feared. Men of character are trusted.” It was an unknown source, but I thought it was a very appropriate quote. Thankfully, I was up last night or this speech would have been terrible.

Kevin was no different

When we recruited Kevin he was no different than anybody else. I spent you know a grand total of maybe 45 minutes to an hour with Kevin Jordan and his family. I didn’t know him any more or less than any recruit who had ever been through campus. And people ask me that all the time, “You must have had a great relationship with Kevin Jordan.” The reality is I didn’t know him from Adam, truthfully.

But I had made those promises to his parents.

So Kevin is about to be this high draft pick. It’s January before he’s supposed to come to campus …. He gets sick. We’re hearing rumors from scouts that he’s not playing well. We don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t really know what’s going on. The parents are telling us it’s just mono; don’t worry about it. No problem. April rolls around, things have gotten worse. He’s continuing to lose weight. He’s having some blood in his urine and he’s not really sure what’s going on. And finally his agent … said, “Kevin you need to get to see a real doctor.” …. He gets to Emory. They find out he’s got a kidney problem. Still, at this time they don’t really know what it is. They start to put him on medication to try to reverse the cause. He still gets drafted in June by the Yankees but not high enough to consider signing. He shows up on our campus in August.

News about the need for a kidney

And again we’re really clueless as a staff to what’s going on here. We had put our doctors in touch with Kevin’s doctors just so everybody was on the same page. It wasn’t until that first doctor’s appointment on Aug. 25 – it was right around the first day of class that I went with Kevin and his parents … to meet for the first time his new doctor at Wake Forest, Dr. Barry Freedman. And I sat in that room for about an hour, and Dr. Freedman walked through everything that Kevin had been through from January to August: losing 40 pounds, kidney function down to 8 percent. He talked about what was in store for Kevin in terms of dialysis and getting in-room dialysis, and he told Kevin he couldn’t have a roommate because of the dialysis. And he also told Kevin, “You’re going to need a kidney transplant.” And that was the first time the parents had heard that. They thought the medication (would work). He was taking 35 pills a day. They thought that medication could reverse this disease. And obviously this doctor did not agree with that.

It was at that exact moment – when I heard what Kevin had gone through, when I heard that it takes three to five years to get off the donor list, when I heard that 15 people die every day in the United States waiting for a kidney – I made an immediate decision that if I could help I would help. I made that decision Aug. 25. I made it on the spot and never looked back. Not one time except maybe when I was on the gurney being wheeled in that I second-guessed the decision. (laughter)

Kevin Jordan’s display of character, courage

To me the real story here is Kevin Jordan. That’s the character. That’s the courage. This guy showed up on our campus. How many of us with this condition would have showed up for freshman year? He didn’t know a single person on the campus. He couldn’t have a roommate. He was going to be hooked up to a dialysis machine from 11 at night until 8 a.m. Dr. Dionne talked about how great college was – four years, drinking beer, John Belushi and “Animal House” – Kevin Jordan had none of that. He didn’t come to college for that. But he showed up every day for practice when he could. He was tired. He usually just sat in the dugout. He was in a fog a lot of the time. But he showed up every day with a smile on his face. He went to class every day, passed all his classes. We talk about taking ownership. Here’s a young man who took ownership. He moved away from home with this condition, checked into his dorm room and hooked himself up to a dialysis machine every day and fought for his life every single day.

I had to help. I had to help. It was a no-brainer.

I immediately talked to the dad after the appointment and said, “Look, if you want me to get tested, say the word. I’ll do it.” And he said, “Nah, we’ve got his mom. We’ve got his brother. I’m going to get tested.”

No family match

Well, one by one his dad got rejected for high blood pressure. The mom was a match but not a great match. The brother for whatever reason couldn’t do it. So Dec. 12 or 13 the dad called me and said, “Are you still willing to get tested?”

“Absolutely. Tell me where to go, what to do.”

So I called the Winston-Salem donor people. I went in. I got my blood work done a few days later. Five days later … they told me my blood and his blood were compatible. So I went through the various hurdles – the 24-hour urine tests, the CAT scans, all that stuff, and I learned on Jan. 28, which was coincidentally the first day of practice, that I was a match, that we were a go.

Here we are three weeks from the season, and I wanted to be at LSU more than anything in the world with our team. So the whole time I was pressing: “We need to have this surgery like yesterday.” The doctors were saying, “Well, it’s not that simple.”

Walter breaks the news to his former coach

I will tell a funny story. I was driving down to the hospital to give this kidney. I called my old coach from home (Johnstown, Pa.), Dee Dee Osborne, greatest guy in the world. I said, “Dee Dee.” I said, “Skipper, there’s something that’s going to come up. You’re probably going to read about it in the papers. I just wanted you to hear it from me. One of our players needs a kidney, and I’m going to give him one of my kidneys.”

And he says, “Walt, you can’t do that. You’re too young to do that.” He goes, “Tell you what. I’ll give him my kidney.” And I said, “Well, Dee Dee. It really doesn’t work that way.” He goes, “Better yet. Tell him to drive up here. He can pick it up.” (audience laughter.)

A happy ending

At any rate, the rest of the story has been well documented. I’m happy to report Kevin just had his last doctor’s appointment at Emory the other day. They cleared him. He was going to Emory twice a week to get his blood levels checked …. His numbers were better than they had ever been. He’s staying on top of his anti-rejection medicine. He’s drinking water and doing all those things they told him to do. So they’ve cleared him. He doesn’t have to go back to Emory anymore. It’s got a happy ending. He’s going to be in summer school here in 10 days or whatever that is. He’s going to be with us for fall practice.

So that’s the story. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be at Wake Forest. I think it’s the greatest place in the world. I sincerely do, and I don’t think this would have been possible anywhere else.

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