Doobie Kurus learned last fall that his former Gophers football teammate Ed Hawthorne was sick and desperately needed a kidney transplant.
On the surface, those two shared little in common as college students, other than being teammates in the early 1990s.
Hawthorne is a black man from Missouri who became team captain and an All-Big Ten nose tackle.
Kurus is a white New Jersey native who joined the Gophers as a walk-on and played sparingly.
They viewed themselves as brothers though, a bond forged by football. Teammates look out for each other. They take care of each other. They pick each other up when one gets knocked down — on the field or in life.
On June 30, after a lengthy process, Kurus gave Hawthorne one of his kidneys in a transplant performed at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Hawthorne says his teammate saved his life.
“Can’t thank him enough,” he said.
Their bond is a testament to their personalities and the power of relationships often formed within locker rooms.
Kurus’ high school didn’t field a football team, so he had never played the sport when he arrived on campus. He decided to walk on because he was a good athlete and wanted to give it a shot. A Gophers assistant coach reluctantly gave him a uniform.
Kurus only played on special teams, the dirty work. He was tough, scrappy and did whatever anyone asked.
Hawthorne, a star who later played one NFL season for the Miami Dolphins, embraced Kurus as a valuable member of the team. They didn’t hang out together socially, but they were friends.
“I tried to be friends with everybody,” Hawthorne said.
Back then, the Gophers equipment staff created an honor called the “Equipment Team All-Americans” — a way to recognize players that treated them with respect and gratitude. They named Hawthorne their MVP in 1994. Kurus was voted to the team as well. He still has a tattered T-shirt commemorating that honor.
“Put it this way: If I was a jerk, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Hawthorne said during an interview with Kurus by his side.
A teammate’s gift
Over the years, Hawthorne and Kurus occasionally would see each other at Gophers games or alumni events. Hawthorne, 46, is a Hennepin County deputy and married with two sons. Kurus, 43, is a preschool teacher and married with three daughters.
Hawthorne received an alarming blood pressure reading during a routine dentist exam in 2012. Later, doctors told him that he had 40 percent kidney function.
He managed his condition with improved diet, significant weight loss and exercise. But by last October, he felt unusually fatigued, even though he looked normal and continued to work full-time.
Doctors discovered that his kidney function had deteriorated to 15 percent. He had kidney disease and needed a transplant.
Only his family and work supervisors knew about his health problems before then. He finally shared details on a CaringBridge site and his wife’s Facebook account.
“That was the hardest thing because I hate asking for help,” he said.
He also told doctors that he wanted his transplant performed at the university hospital, nowhere else.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without the U,” he said.
Word of his condition spread quickly. Kurus received an e-mail from the Gophers football department distributed to former players. Kurus told his wife he wanted to help.
Hawthorne later learned that more than 100 people inquired to see whether they were a potential donor match.
Tests revealed that Kurus was a match, though he was nearly eliminated. Tests found a small kidney stone on his right kidney. Doctors were concerned that might become a problem if he had only one kidney.
Kurus modified his diet for six weeks, and his next test gave him clearance to donate.
Kurus had consulted with his family about risks and also talked to other kidney donors to hear their stories.
“I’ve got something that essentially I don’t need,” he said. “It’s nice to have a backup kidney, but I don’t need it and someone else does. I could give him time back in his life. Time back in his family’s life, and it really won’t cost me anything.”
Kurus received final approval in late April. He e-mailed Hawthorne, who, for privacy reasons, only knew that Kurus had gone through testing.
Hawthorne sent an e-mail reply to Kurus: “No kidding! That’s good news!”
By May, Hawthorne needed two hours of dialysis treatment five days a week. Asked if his situation was life or death, he said, “Oh yeah.”
A new bond
Kurus met his surgeon before the operation. After explaining the procedure, his surgeon asked if he had any questions.
Yes, a weird one, Kurus said: “Where did you go to medical school?” “Stanford,” his surgeon answered. “Why?”
“Just want to make sure you’re not from Wisconsin,” Kurus told him.
Kurus told Hawthorne about that exchange when they met later that day. Hawthorne had a different surgeon. He smiled when he heard Kurus’ unusual request.
“I asked the same thing,” Hawthorne said.
They didn’t want a Badger operating on them. They were only half-joking.
The transplant took place June 30. Both men feel great in their recovery and hope to return to work this fall. They have restrictions on their diet and how much they can lift, but Hawthorne is walking 2 miles a day.
“People have given me way too much credit for what I’ve done,” Kurus said. “I just had something that Ed needed.”
“That’s a big thing though,” Hawthorne responded with a laugh.
They hope their story resonates on campus, especially inside the football team. Kurus wants to get a tattoo near his scar that depicts blood drops in maroon and gold.
“It runs deep,” he said.
Hawthorne shares a message with Gophers football players every time he meets one. “I let them know that I’m their brother,” he said. “Whatever you need, I’m your big brother.”
Those relationships can follow unexpected paths later in life. Hawthorne has renewed health because of his football brother.
He plans to call or reach out to his friend every June 30, to honor his generosity.
Kurus told Hawthorne that his gift comes with “no strings attached.”
“I wanted to do it,” Kurus said, “because it’s the right thing to do.”