MLB Legend Rod Carew And The Former NFL Pro Who Gave Him A New HeartPlay
This story originally aired on Nov. 3, 2017. This week it appears again as part of our episode on "Assists."
Konrad Reuland had what people in sports call a "motor."
"I had to put bells on his shoes," says Mary Reuland, Konrad's mother. "I needed to know where that little guy was at all times, because he just had so much energy. And, if I took him grocery shopping, I had to actually harness him in the cart. One time, he got out of the cart and I could not find him, and he was hiding in a freezer case. So, I had to be on my game with this one, I'll tell you that."
Konrad was on his game, too. By age 4, he was pouring his considerable energy into baseball, basketball, soccer and tennis. When he was 11, he crossed paths with a baseball legend.
"He happened to meet Rod Carew at grade school," Mary says.
Rod Carew, the 1967 Rookie of the Year and All-Star for 18 consecutive seasons. Rod Carew, the 1977 American League MVP and winner of seven batting titles. When they met, Carew was Konrad's favorite professional athlete in any sport.
"And I remember him getting into the car when I went to pick him up, and he says, 'Mommy! Mom! Mom! I met Rod Carew today!' And, 'You know, he was a pro athlete!' And, 'You know, I want to be a pro athlete!' And the whole rest of the day just resonated with him talking about his meeting Rod Carew. And it sure left an impression on young Konrad."
Konrad played baseball for a time, but focused on basketball and football in high school. He was one of the top tight ends in the country. He played two years at Notre Dame and two years at Stanford. He was undrafted coming out of college in 2011. But in 2012, he played in 16 regular season games and hauled in 11 passes with the New York Jets. His pro career looked like it was taking off.
"It was tremendous," says Ralf Reuland, Konrad's dad.
"We were so proud of him," he says. "And we were so happy for him that he had realized his goals and was now in the big time and playing at the highest level."
But that didn't last long. Konrad suffered a knee injury in 2013, which kept him on injured reserve and practice squads the next two seasons. He rehabbed diligently, but NFL teams weren't convinced he could still play. Mary Reuland was.
"He was in the best shape of his life," Mary says. "He wasn't done yet."
In the spring of 2016, Konrad was back in California, where he'd often land in between contracts. He had taken business courses and was considering a career in real estate. Konrad was beginning to think about life beyond football. One day, as Mary made dinner, Konrad filled out his driver's license renewal form.
"And he says, 'Mom, do you think I should be an organ donor?'" Mary recalls. "And I said, 'Honey, that's completely your decision.' And so he says, 'Mom, are you one?' And I said, 'Yes, I've always been one.' And he says, 'You know what? I'm gonna do it.' I just remember thinking at that time, 'Gosh, I hope it never comes to something like that.'"
'We Knew It Was Going To Be A Real Tough Situation'
Konrad continued to train at a local gym while waiting for an opportunity with an NFL team. Two days after Thanksgiving, he called home.
"Konrad said that he had had a headache that had developed," Ralf says. "He had lifted some weights a little bit, nothing real strenuous, and then got on the treadmill. And after a minute or so on the treadmill, he felt a little click in his head and he felt a pain behind his left eye.
"As I'm a physician, I have a little bit of an understanding about that. And I was just hoping the whole time that it wasn't an aneurysm. By the time we got to the hospital, they had already made the diagnosis. It was an aneurysm, and it was a bad one in a bad place. So we knew it was going to be a real tough situation."
Konrad was admitted to UCLA Medical Center. Mary stayed with him. The next day, when she was in the hospital cafeteria getting coffee to ease Konrad's persistent headache, she texted him an encouraging message. He texted back, saying, "I’m about to kick this thing's butt, with the help of God. He had something big in store for me." Moments after sending that text, Konrad told a nurse that his headache had suddenly gotten much worse.
"And then Konrad's aneurysm burst," Mary says. "And they did the 17-hour surgery to try to save his life."
He'd never regain consciousness. On Dec. 12, 2016, Konrad Reuland was declared brain dead at the age of 29.
"But, at least we got the four days before it burst to to tell him how much we loved him and how proud we were," she says.
'They'd Found Me A Heart'
As the Reulands' terrible drama played out, a more hopeful one was unfolding. Doctors kept Konrad's body on life support, and the call had gone out to the recipients at the top of the organ transplant list.
"We had gone to San Diego for a doctor's appointment," Rod Carew says.
Carew had suffered a massive heart attack in 2015. He needed a new heart.
"And my wife was driving," Carew continues.
That would be Rhonda Carew.
"So on the way back, we received a phone call," he says. "And she jumped at it and started to talk to someone that they'd found me a heart."
"I was shaking so badly," Rhonda says. "And it was like, 'OK, here it is, this is it, here we go.' And we had a list of people to either text or call, telling them that we're on our way, that we had received the call. And a couple of people texted back and asked the question, 'Do you think it's Konrad Reuland?' I didn't know why I was being asked that question."
Rhonda knew the name. The Reulands lived nearby, and the Carews knew Konrad was a pro football player. But she was too worried about her husband's health to give that too much thought.
'This Is Not Just A Coincidence'
Rod's heart transplant was a success. Actually, his transplants were a success — he got a kidney, too. But he and Rhonda wondered from whom the organs had come.
Mary Reuland had wanted to know to whom Konrad's organs had gone. She wanted to meet the recipient. Representatives of the organ donation network told her that the protocol was that they'd have to wait at least a year.
"I said, 'I don’t care,'" Mary recalls. "Whoever gets his heart, we would like to meet them. And then the next thing I said was, 'And whoever gets his heart better deserve it, because it's a good one.'"
Konrad's funeral was held on Dec. 23, 2016.
"Countless people were coming up to me and saying, 'Mary, do you think it went to Rod Carew?'" she recalls. "And I'm looking at them like they suddenly grew a third eye or something. I'm like, 'What are you talking about?'
"So the next day, I was at home and I started looking on the internet, and I saw the whole story of how it unfolded with Rod Carew, and I got to the part where it says 'the Heart of 29.'"
The Heart of 29 is Rod and Rhonda Carew's campaign to raise awareness about heart disease prevention. Twenty-nine was Rod's jersey number for his entire Major League career. Konrad died at age 29.
"I'm like, 'This is not just a coincidence,'" Mary says.
Meanwhile, the Carews discovered that Konrad Reuland had a blood type that was compatible with Rod's.
"I mean, it was amazing," Rhonda says. "It all checked out. And the blood typing was the last item. Now we just needed confirmation that we were right."
Mary got Rhonda's number from a mutual friend and, against the recommendation of the organ donation agency, she called her.
"And I think I said something to the effect of, 'Hello, this is Mary Reuland. And I think your husband has my son's heart and left kidney,'" Mary recalls.
They talked about blood type and all the amazing factors that helped make the match. But they still wanted confirmation.
"And so I called the donor company," Mary says, "and I said, 'Hey, listen: you know, it's all over the internet. It's everywhere.' I said, 'I need to know: did my son's heart and left kidney go to Rod Carew?' And the lady kinda just paused for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably just a second or so. And she said, 'Yes it did.'"
As far as anyone can tell, this was the first time a pro athlete donated a heart to another pro athlete.
The Carews And Reulands Meet
The families decided to meet in March of 2017. The Carews drove from their nearby home to the Reulands’. Rod was nervous. But that didn't last long.
"When we pulled up to the house, Mary came out and gave me a big hug and gave Rhonda a big hug," Rod says. "And it was a great feeling for me, because when Mary leaned over to put her head on my chest, I had to hold it back because I thought I was going to cry at that moment. So I held back and waited until she could hear Konrad's heart."
While Konrad had been in a coma after his 17-hour surgery, Mary had spent several days with her ear to his chest, listening to his beating heart. It had been three months since she'd done that.
"I had it memorized," Mary says. "I knew that sound. It was a Ferrari beating in that chest. And that just thrilled me. I was hoping that I would get to hear that heartbeat again."
"Oh, boy, and he's beating," Rod says. "So now we're one, we're brothers and we're going to do great work by spreading the word about donors and getting more people to listen to us. And hopefully they do."
"We call ourselves 'The Carewlands' now," Rhonda says. "We've got a picture of Konrad with our family photos. We spend a lot of time with them. And of course we only live 12 miles apart, too, which is wonderful. They can listen to Konrad's heart any time they choose."
Since this story first aired in Nov. 2017, Rod and Rhonda Carew became grandparents for the first time.
This segment aired on September 29, 2018.