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Ohio State, Michigan fans a perfect match with life-saving kidney transplant

Sporting News logo Sporting News 11/26/2019 Bill Bender
a man holding a sign © Provided by Sporting News

PICKERINGTON, Ohio — Kevin Holmes' maize-and-blue Michigan T-shirt sticks out in the gray Central Ohio sky this time of year. It's the kind of shirt one might think twice about wearing in public, in this part of the country at least, during the week of "The Game."

In contrast, Tez Reardon's scarlet T-shirt and gray pullover blends in with the landscape in the Ohio State-football-crazed-town of Pickerington, Ohio.

Yet that tie to the timeless rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan — one that resumes this Saturday — is part of the reason Holmes found a lifeline in Reardon at a time of desperate need.

It was Reardon's uncommon act of kindness that set up a punch-line both sides have used in an off-the-cuff manner: Most fans wouldn't give the other side of this rivalry the time of day.

Who would give a kidney?

On Sept. 6, Reardon, a die-hard Ohio State fan, gave Holmes — a Michigan fan — her kidney at the Ohio State University Transplant Center. It's the culmination of a friendship that started on the basketball court, continued through the donor process and now evolves with a recovery that has one of college football's greatest rivalries as the backdrop this week. Reardon and Holmes saw a mutual respect in each other that extended beyond the teams they root for on Saturday.

"I could tell he was one of those genuinely hard-working good people," Reardon told Sporting News. "That's what made the decision very easy.

"I always joke with him now," she said. "I say, 'You need to root for Ohio State for one game this season or I'm going to take my kidney back.'"

Holmes' life changed forever when he was just 20 years old. The now-45-year-old Ann Arbor native was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a condition that leads to the growth of cysts, which in turn causes the kidneys to enlarge and eventually fail over time. Holmes had managed the condition for 12 years when he made the decision to follow his younger sister, Tawana Mims, to Pickerington.

"He moved here after I did," Mims told SN. "After he knew I was getting married and going to stay, he moved here with his family. We're super close and wanted to make sure our kids were raised together."

Family is everything to Holmes and Mims. Their parents Charles and Therese live in Ozark, Ala., now and throughout much of their lives Kevin was the big brother to Tawana. That changed, however, when Holmes' kidney function began to deteriorate.

"This situation happened, and we kind of had roles reversed," Mims told SN. "I was like, 'OK. You're not eating that. You're not doing that. You're going to do what they tell you to do.' I kind of turned into the big little sister."

Holmes would find another sister when he least expected it in the winter of 2016, after his son Kavon didn't make the local travel basketball team. He landed instead on Reardon's team in the Pickerington Youth Athletic Association. That turned out to be the first of many blessings.

"I played basketball in high school, and I know the ins and outs," Holmes said. "I could tell by the way she was coaching the boys that she knew what she was talking about."

Of course, she does.

Reardon grew up in Logan, Ohio, where she played high school basketball with future Ohio State legend Katie Smith. The Logan High School Chieftains made the Division I state championship game in 1992, but lost 53-46 to Pickerington. That's the place Reardon would move after a five-year college basketball career at UMass from 1994 to 1999.

Reardon added to the intense basketball culture in Pickerington, where she coaches her son Tyson. She was even ejected from a game in 2016 over a disagreement about help defense.

It's not what you think. Bill Andrews, the vice president of PYAA, was the referee in that game. Despite that encounter, Andrews received an unexpected surprise from Reardon afterward.

"Two weeks later I get a condolence card from her after my father passed away," Andrews said. "That kind of created a relationship that stands today."

That's who Reardon is. It was in that same season that Reardon met Holmes and coached his son Kavon.

"When I was Kavon's coach, you're always wondering how parents feel when they have a woman coaching a boy. Kevin was always super supportive of me," Reardon said. "He would say, 'Kevon, listen to your coach. She knows what she is talking about.'"

Reardon serves on the board now, but she also maintains relationships with former parents and players. That is how she reconnected with Holmes.

All the while, Holmes' condition grew more taxing. He received a grim diagnosis in January 2018: His kidneys were functioning at roughly 13 percent of a healthy set of kidneys.

"When it got to 13 percent and knowing dialysis is at 10 percent, they said I might want to swallow my pride and try to find a living donor," Holmes said. "A dead donor kidney could take five, 10 or 15 years to do."

There were, of course, reservations about putting that out on social media. Mims said the family prefers to keep its affairs private, but it had no choice. Holmes' wife Nichelle posted a Facebook message on Jan. 30 detailing Kevin's need for a match with his blood type. Mims shared it on her page with low expectations.

"By the time I got home there were 567 shares out there, so then based on the share my neighbor, she ended up sharing on her page, and a friend of hers shared on her page," Mims said. "That's how Tez saw the actual post."

Reardon calls it a "fourth-degree share." She recognized Holmes in the picture and reached out to Mims to see how she could help. Reardon was one of five potential donors who went through testing over the next few months, and once all the diagnostics checked out, it was time to schedule the transplant surgery. By the time they broke the news to Holmes, his kidneys were functioning at roughly 10 percent.

"When I found out she was the perfect match, it broke me down," Holmes said. "It went full circle from her coaching my son to her giving me a kidney."

Reardon, for her part, never second-guessed the decision.

"I don't think I ever was scared," she said. "It kind of just came out of nowhere when I actually said I was going to do it. I kind of looked at myself and said, 'What am I doing?'

"It never crossed my mind not to do it."

Holmes and Reardon met in the lobby of Ohio State University Transplant Center on Sept. 6 and exchanged one of those awkward looks that only "The Game" could provide. Reardon wore an Homage shirt that asked, "How 'bout them Buckeyes?" Holmes wore a maize shirt with "Michigan Wolverines" script before second-guessing his decision.

He looked at his wife and sister and offered this simple quip:

"Maybe I should take it off so they don't get mad at me?'"

Reardon laughed, something Holmes said immediately made the process less of an ordeal.

"It helped out a lot with the anxiety part for me," he said. "I was nervous the whole time from the time we walked in there. That kind of rivalry aspect with the shirts kind of calmed me down."

a man and a woman sitting on a bed: Kevin Holmes-Tez Reardon © Provided by Sporting News Kevin Holmes-Tez Reardon

The three-hour surgery was a success, and the two spent the day in recovery on Sept. 7. That day, Ohio State played Cincinnati while Michigan played Army in the same noon window. Reardon asked the nurses to move her bed to the other side of the hospital, which overlooks nearby Ohio Stadium. Holmes, meanwhile, watched the Wolverines win a 24-21 double-overtime thriller.

"I just didn't want to hear from the Ohio State fans while I was there because I knew they would let me hear it," he said.

By Sunday, Reardon was home. Holmes returned home on Thursday but had to return several times as part of a grueling recovery that will not allow him to return to work until Jan. 1 at the earliest. A family friend turned to Facebook again to start a GoFundMe page to help deal with the financial hardships that come with that, but Holmes can take his mind off that this week.

He will hear from Reardon soon enough.

"The Game" is here.

Andrews has a unique perspective of the rivalry, too. The Cambridge, Ohio, native played kicker at Ohio State and was listed on the team's roster in 1981-82. He was on the field when Todd Bell scooped up a blocked punt and ran in for a touchdown to beat Michigan 18-15 at Michigan Stadium in 1979. Andrews sees Reardon and Holmes as another example that humanizes the intense rivalry between the two schools.

"That ties into it," Andrews said. "The rivalry from a player's perspective, it's not a mean-spirited rivalry. On the field, you don't see much dirty play. For this to have transpired, it kind of wraps up what the whole rivalry is about."

The Reardon-Holmes' connection illustrates that more than anything else.

"Just to know that somebody wanted to do this out of the kindness of her heart is amazing," Mims said. "Our family calls her our angel because she was able to do this selfless act."

Said Holmes: "I have her kidney in my body. That's my sister. I feel like Tez and I share something forever. I have her with me."

Does that mean they'll be watching "The Game" together on Saturday? Holmes and Reardon could only let out a nervous laugh when faced with that proposition.

"I feel like there is no way we can't watch 'The Game' together," Reardon said. "It feels like we have to."

"Yeah, we have to," Holmes agreed. "She is more than welcome. That doesn't bother me because I'm going to be who I am win or lose."

In this case, both sides win by living to talk about it. Their Ohio State-Michigan fandom is the perfect match.

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