INDIANAPOLIS — Consider Baylor basketball. What do you see? Probably the man in charge of its reinvention, coach Scott Drew. The No. 1-seeded Bears are in the Final Four for the first time in 71 years. And while Drew is the face and affable force that’s brought Baylor to the brink of historic achievement, it takes a lot of people to make something so significant.
College basketball teams — good ones, at least — tend to function like families. Huge families, but families still. There is love and tolerance, familiarity and forgiveness, agitation and acceptance. Every team has a few people — the head coach and a couple of star players — who receive the lion’s share of the attention and the credit. Truth is, every great program needs many great people in order to do great things.
This includes sports information directors. The good ones are accommodating. The great ones are selfless, tireless. Diplomats of the game. They give more of themselves than their programs might even deserve. They’re often overworked, overlooked and more valuable than their paycheck suggests.
And they tend to avoid the spotlight. Sports information directors (SIDs) shun attention, usually, because it’s their job to be liaisons to the media. SIDs are the people responsible for helping share the stories of the people at their programs. If you’ve ever come across a story on a website, in a newspaper or on TV that you loved, there’s a good chance an SID was part of making that story happen.
Which brings us to Baylor SID David Kaye, the spirit and stabilizing force behind the Bears men’s basketball team. This isn’t about him helping to secure an interview or configuring a press conference. This is about giving a human being a chance to survive, to be a father and husband.
“He’s someone I have great respect for,” Drew said. “A great friend, a servant.”
This is about saving another man’s life.
“The first thing he asked was, ‘What can I do?'”
That’s Kevin talking about his friend David. Kevin Barrera and David Kaye have known each other since 2005, when they were both Baylor students. Kaye was an intern in the communications department, while Barrera was a trainer’s assistant for the baseball team. They’d go to Baylor games together as undergrads, taking road trips to see Big 12 football. In 2008, they sat in the nosebleeds at Texas A&M for Baylor’s first game as a ranked team under Drew: an epic five-overtime 116-100 victory vs. the Aggies. David and Kevin have only grown closer since.
“If you’re given a direct opportunity to help someone, you’re obligated to do that,” David said.
Barrera was diagnosed at 30 as a Type 2 diabetic. This was discovered after he tore the labrum in his hip, which required surgery, only for the doctors to run blood tests and notice abnormally high blood sugar levels. Hip surgery was postponed and the course of his life changed. That course took a steep turn four years later, in October 2019, when Barrera checked his own blood pressure to see a disturbingly high reading — something in the neighborhood of 220/120, he recalled. His kidney-function levels were drastically out of range. Barrera was told he was in Stage 5 of kidney disease (renal failure). Diabetes was ravaging some of his organs. Kidneys filter out the toxins in the blood, and his mostly weren’t, causing some organs to break down.
He’d need to go on dialysis, and he’d need a kidney transplant soon enough as well. By late March 2020, just as the pandemic secured a grip on the globe, he was approved for that transplant. But who could it be? Kevin was 35 at the time. His wife was a match, but due to a history of high-blood pressure, she wasn’t a candidate.
David was. Their blood types (A+) matched (a requirement) and David was healthy enough in all other facets to be a donor. Kevin delivered the news of his condition to David at one of their favorite lunch spots, Guess Family Barbecue, a couple of weeks prior. Internally, David knew what had to be done.
“I don’t know that we implicitly talked about it, but I knew what he was going to do,” Emily Kaye, David’s wife, said. “I knew he was going to sign up. That’s who David is. Kevin’s one of his closest friends. Kevin was in our wedding, they’ve been friends ever since David got back home from deployment. I think our full conversation about it was three minutes.”
Deployment. That’s another part of David’s story. Wait a minute.
Back to Guess Family Barbecue.
David took out his phone over lunch and nonchalantly registered to be a kidney donor right in front of Kevin.
“The first thing I felt was shock,” Kevin said. “How simple it was for him to take his phone and just apply. My intentions weren’t to go there and tell him, ‘Do you mind applying for me?’ That’s such a personal issue. Being an organ donor, that’s not easy. You’re sacrificing one of your organs for someone else.”
Kaye sees it completely the other way, and his background informs that a bit. He’s a man of sacrifice and, like most SIDs, wired to think of others first.
David and Emily met after being guilted into a blind date set up by a mutual college professor. The catch: this happened in 2006 when David was on two-week home leave while serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Emily knew after the first date she was going to marry him. They wedded in July 2008. Kaye was inspired to serve his country after the 9/11 attacks happened during his senior of high school. After appeasing his parents by going through his freshman year at Baylor, he signed up for the Army Reserve. For two summers Kaye went through training (while still an undergrad at BU) then took the aptitude test and nailed it with a perfect score — a 99.
He built infrastructure for communications networks during wartime, working as a specialist in the August oven of Kuwait. The wind blows and it’s a hairdryer. Sand flying makes it feel like you’re taking on oil spatters from a frying pan. After Kuwait, Kaye was posted in the snowy, rugged mountains of Afghanistan. He served a year’s worth of deployment before returning to finish his degree at Baylor.
Easy to see why a kidney donation was a simple act for the man.
“Most people can survive on dialysis for a while, and it might seem pressing for some people, but there is a huge need,” David said. “You can still donate and still live a perfectly normal life. It’s not that huge of a sacrifice.”
Death also loomed heavy in this decision. Not just Kevin’s life, but a life that was no longer there. Kevin lost someone who would have been a likely match; one of his brothers was killed in an automobile accident a few years prior.
“It was always with me: Matthew would have done this for him, had he been there,” David said.
Then there was Kevin’s wife, Stephanie. Their boys, Aaron and Aiden.
“Kevin has kids, two of them, and the thought … David thought, I can’t watch my good friend go through this,” Emily said.
Signing up was not even a debate. The question was: Would David be a match?
“The day when David went to meet and talk with Kevin, he came home and said, ‘I did sign up,'” Emily said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to be the match, I know it.'”
Didn’t take long for that turn to be true. And though Kevin had time, he didn’t have a lot of time. The average dialysis patient can live for about five years before not having a new kidney can prove fatal. Those in need of kidneys are on the waitlist for 3-5 years on average, Barrera said, because it remains a high-demand condition (thus the need for dialysis centers). Kevin’s situation was a bit more urgent. Had David not been a match, and had he gone on the wait list, the interlude would have upped his risk for survival.
“You still have to be grounded a little bit because you don’t want to get your hopes up,” Kevin said. “David’s a healthy guy, but you keep your emotions grounded. When someone does that, it’s such a selfless act. He doesn’t like it, but I tell him he’s my hero all the time and he laughs it off. But it’s truly how I feel. My sons, they love him. My wife and his wife have become good friends over this.”
Surgery was approved by the middle of May and scheduled for June 3. David wasn’t settling at being Kevin’s donor. He splurged and bought a Peloton and rode it every day until the morning of their surgeries.
Kidney-donation surgery usually happens like this: the donor arrives at the hospital first and has their kidney removed. The organ is inspected and cleared for transfer, and then the recipient goes under to receive the transplant. For David and Kevin, this happened in the middle of a worsening pandemic, which made the process a bit lonelier.
Emily and Stephanie were allowed to stay in the waiting room, just them, and they did for 12 hours until they had to leave the hospital. They prayed throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. It took Kevin longer than expected to leave isolation recovery, which added to the stress and worry. Baylor’s coaches texted for updates.
But eventually, both men were cleared. The transplant was a success. They weren’t allowed to visit each other in their rooms because of COVID-19, but the nurses who came to learn their story arranged for them to take a walk at the same time in the hospital hallway. With one room between them, the first time David got up to walk, he peeked in and saw his friend from 20 feet away.
“You could notice his skin tone was immediately better,” David said. “We both looked at each other and there was this big smile. We’re both looking at each other for the first time. We know: hey we’re both doing great.”
They were holding IV poles and walkers in short time. Old friends looking like old men.
“You don’t realize how sick someone is when you see them on a continuous basis,” Emily said. “It can be a shock to look back and realize, wow, they were really sick. But I’ll never forget, the next morning I come into the hospital … I hadn’t realized how gray and how sick Kevin had been. But overnight, his skin was pink and looked healthy again. To see that transformation so quickly, it was overwhelming. Stephanie came out in the hallway and we were bawling, hugging each other.”
Diabetes gave him a bad pancreas, too. When we spoke on Tuesday — the one-year anniversary of being approved for a kidney transplant — he was a week removed from receiving a new pancreas. Normally those in need of a kidney and pancreas try to receive both in the same surgery, but receiving a kidney from a live donor statistically lengthens the lifespan of the recipient.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without him right now,” Barrera said. “I am not exaggerating. When I went into the hospital in October 2019, I would have died by the end of the year. I have no question about that.”
Kevin expects to live a normal life now. He’ll have his new pancreas (received from a deceased donor) for about eight years. Kaye’s left kidney, now in Kevin, will last for 20 years, or at least that’s the hope. Doctors told Kevin his two kidneys were functioning at approximately 10% capacity prior to the transplant. Now David’s is “picking up the slack for the other two,” as he put it.
David didn’t push for this story to be told. There was some mild coercion to get him to do so, and he agreed in an effort to raise awareness over how easy it is to be a donor, and why people should not shy away from helping others. Someone out there is in need right now. You might be the person who can help save them.
“I’m a lot more of a private person,” said Emily, “but especially in this, if it demystifies the process for somebody else and someone else would consider being a live donor because of hearing it’s not as dramatic as it sounds, then it’s worth it to talk about.”
And Kevin is thriving. His voice was full of gratefulness when we spoke earlier this week. David has been in a bubble-type existence for almost a month, but as soon as this NCAA Tournament run ends for Baylor, it will be time for the friends to reunite and celebrate once more.
“I think more than anything, organ donors are a godsend,” Barrera said. “I don’t know any other way to say it. It’s such a selfless act that they do.”
Last summer the Barrera family took a trip to the Gulf of Mexico. Stephanie took a photo of him swimming in the water with his boys two boys. He sent it to David. I know this is corny, but I wouldn’t be in the water with my boys without you. Thank you.
“We’re a family at this point,” Emily said. “I 100 percent know if the roles had been reversed and Kevin was healthy and had something to give to help David, it would have been the same the other way around. I’m grateful when we look back on this time, we’ve got something wonderful to mark what was a really hard season.”
There’s a slightly crooked four-inch scar just above David’s waistline that will forever serve as a symbol of what he represents to so may people. Servant, steward, soldier — loyal friend.
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