WHEN A RAVEN GAVE A STEELER HIS KIDNEY
Former Raven Ma’ake Kemoeatu donated a kidney to his younger brother and former Steeler, Chris.
Ma’ake Kemoeatu had never said the words “I love you” to his brother, Chris Kemoeatu.
After all, they’re hulking, hitting Tongan football players. They weren’t raised with such sappy words.
Plus, those are words a Raven and a Steeler would never dream of uttering to one another. Right?
Turns out, blood is thicker than rivalries.
With Chris’ life in jeopardy, Ma’ake gave Chris one of his two kidneys.
Now they have gained a new appreciation for their love, and those three words don’t come as hard.
Chris’ football career ended because of kidney problems in 2011, following seven seasons as a guard with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chris, 31, had been dealing with the issues since he was eight years old.
Ma’ake, 35, played for nine seasons, starting with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent nose tackle in 2002 and finishing with them and a Lombardi Trophy in 2012. He was a starter in Super Bowl XLVII.
It was at about that time that doctors told Chris he would need a kidney transplant. And it was then that Ma’ake retired from football to help.
“He couldn't play anymore, and I didn't want to be in a position where he couldn't play but I'd keep playing,” Ma’ake said. “As soon as my brother's health was at risk, I wanted to stop everything.”
It’s not easy to find a kidney. The blood types not only have to match, but so do the body types. And with Chris tipping the scales at 6-foot-4 and around 350 pounds, there aren’t many viable candidates that match.
Up stepped Ma’ake. While his other siblings were 85 percent matches, Ma’ake was an unheard of 99 percent match. Ma’ake didn’t hesitate, but still had to fight off his father to be the donor.
It's always been about family for Ma'ake. He has a huge tattoo of "KEMOEATU" across his back.
“I’m the oldest of the seven kids, so it was my responsibility to take care of my younger brothers and sisters,” Ma’ake said. “If my brother or any of my siblings needed blood, it would be my blood. If my brothers or sisters needed a kidney, it would have to be my kidney.”
The process wasn’t an easy one.
Ma’ake, who was listed at 345 pounds when he last played with the Ravens, was up to 385. He needed to get in better shape so that he could survive with just one kidney after the surgery.
The procedure was also not going to be easy for the University of Maryland medical staff. Just the sheer amount of mass they would have to work through was a new record, said transplant surgeon Dr. Stephen Bartlett.
“The kidney we got from Ma’ake was probably the largest normal kidney I’ve ever seen,” Barlett said, adding that it was about 1.5 times the normal size. “Man, when that thing came out, I felt like somebody threw me a small football.”
After more than a 18 months of preparation for the transplant, Chris went in for a final stress test the day before the transplant was scheduled. It was then that doctors realized Chris also had coronary disease and would need a bypass.
Chris called his brother to tell him the news.
“I said to him, ‘You know what, we’re going to get through this,’” Ma’ake recalled. “I had to talk to him in football aspects. I said, ‘We thought we were getting the first down, but it’s fourth-and-long now. We’ve got to go deep, we’ve got to dig deep. We’ll make it through the first down – the heart surgery – to the end zone: the kidney transplant.”
It was at that time that the brothers broke down and shared more intimate feelings. Chris was on the verge of heart surgery. He was going to go through two major operations in six weeks.
“I think it definitely brought us closer,” Chris said. “It took us to places we never imagined. We never thought it would come to this. We always think we’re healthy, and we never get sick. It definitely changed the way I look at things with my brother as far as sharing.”
The transplant was rescheduled for Aug. 27 at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and it went “beautifully,” say the doctors.
The brothers are recovering well, faster than expected. It usually takes about six weeks. They’re eager to get back to their native Hawaii, where they own a gym together. Chris is done playing football. Ma’ake is open to going back, but doesn’t have immediate plans.
For now, they’re itching to spend more time with each other and the rest of their family.
“I’m a Raven. He’s a Steeler. At our household, it’s kind of split in half. For this procedure, we had to come together,” Ma’ake joked at the brothers’ joint press conference.
“We were not big on saying, ‘I love you,’ in our family. Growing up, we were raised in a tough atmosphere as far as saying that. We already knew it. I think after this procedure, I think we’ve grown to where we can say it. I can swallow my pride and say it. I love you, man.”