CLEMSON, S.C. — Keith Henry needed to have a talk with his son. He had kept a secret from him for months because it was football season and he didn’t want to distract him.
But the time had come for a talk following the 2021 season. Keith took his son, All-ACC Clemson defensive end K.J. Henry, to the Esso Club, the most famous establishment on the Tigers’ campus, and leveled with him.
“I need a kidney transplant.”
He explained the chronic kidney disease he had lived with since the early 2000s and how it had deteriorated the functionality of both kidneys to dangerous levels. K.J. sat in shock and disbelief, but he felt certain about one thing.
“Dad,” he said. “I promise, we’re going to find you a kidney.” K.J. grew resolute, and told himself, “It’s time to get to work.”
Around the same time, Karen Eaton received a letter in the mail at her home in Florida from the Henry family. She, too, sat in stunned disbelief as she read the words on the page. In the letter the Henrys sent to friends and family across the country, they outlined the situation and let it be known they were looking for a kidney donor.
Eaton reread the letter and had the same thought as K.J., hundreds of miles away.
It was time to get to work.
Now, nearly a year later, K.J. Henry will start for Clemson at the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), and a happy and healthy Keith Henry will cheer from the stands. They’re here thanks to help from Clemson teammates and name, image and likeness dollars. They’re here thanks to help from family. This is a story of the bonds that tie a son to his father, and the power of family and selfless giving in the most desperate time of need.
KEITH HENRY SPENT his entire 31-year career as an assistant football coach, the pinnacle perhaps being an ACC championship at Wake Forest in 2006. As K.J. grew into an elite high school prospect in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Keith did his best to advise his son, and K.J. always listened.
“He became a sponge on the field, off the field, in the locker room,” said Nicole Henry, K.J.’s mom. “He observed a lot, and he took it to heart, and he definitely did a lot with the knowledge that he received from his father.”
But as a college coach with few, if any, days off, there is one thing Keith rarely did: watch his son play in actual games. That changed over the past two years, when Keith decided to step away from coaching to focus on his health. Keith and Nicole went to every Clemson game, soaking in every moment, understanding that nothing is ever promised.
When Henry recovered a fumble against Boston College to preserve a 19-13 win last season, Keith Henry grew emotional in the stands. Not only was he there to see his son make the game-saving play, he knew what was on the horizon for him — even if his son did not. To this day, K.J. Henry calls that one of his greatest memories, because “I heard how happy my parents were, how it brought my dad to tears. That was just such a cool thing to hear.”
It means even more now that K.J. knows what his father was dealing with at the time. After K.J. learned his father needed a kidney transplant, he racked his brain trying to figure out ways he could help. Teammate Will Shipley noticed Henry seemed down and distracted in the locker room a few days later, and pulled him aside to ask what was wrong.
Henry confessed what was happening with his father and told Shipley how badly he wanted to do something to help. Eventually, the two hatched a plan: They would use the new NIL rules to host an autograph signing and launch a fundraiser to provide financial support for the kidney transplant and ensuing medical expenses.
“To be able to take my platform and help a teammate out, that is truly my responsibility, and I don’t take that lightly at all,” Shipley said. “When the opportunity presented itself with K.J., I’m going to jump on it, just try to help in any way that I can.”
— KJ Henry (@thekjhenry) February 9, 2022
On Feb. 9, 2022, Henry took to social media to announce what was happening with his father, and his plan to help.
“That was the one time I was nervous,” Henry said. “I just wanted to make sure that I portrayed him in the best light, No. 1. Then, No. 2, that was 100 percent a place of ‘I need someone’s help,’ and I wasn’t comfortable in that space. I wasn’t used to saying those words, and it was definitely humbling.”
The donations, and support, started pouring in. K.J. ended up partnering with Help Hope Live, an organization dedicated to helping patients with fundraising for uninsured expenses. In all, they have raised more than $100,000 for Keith, and K.J. remains an advocate for the organization.
By the time the autograph signing rolled around, all 350 tickets were sold and Henry had 10 teammates by his side: Shipley, tight ends Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool, receiver Beaux Collins, quarterback Cade Klubnik, running back Phil Mafah, offensive linemen Jordan McFadden and Marcus Tate, kicker B.T. Potter and defensive end Xavier Thomas.
Also in attendance: Keith and Nicole Henry, and K.J.’s siblings, Isaiah and Maya, visibly overwhelmed.
“K.J. is a giver and he wanted to do something to help his father,” Nicole said. “We were really amazed, thankful and blown away when we saw how many people were lined up out the door and around the corner before they could get in just to be there for us. That was awesome.”
Someone walked up to Keith and asked what he thought about the event, and he said, “Look at this. I’m full right now. My son and their teammates did not have to do this for me or for my family. This right here takes the cake. It tells you who Clemson really is.”
In addition to players signing autographs, the Henrys also had information on how to become a kidney donor.
“People volunteering to check their blood type to see if there was a match, it was astounding. I mean, it was tears of joy, just to see the support from the Clemson family, from the players, from my family and from other donors to give me advice, to support me. I truly thank them because I was blessed,” Keith said.
The blessings had only just begun.
IN FLORIDA, EATON made a declaration to her husband, Koco, as soon as she was done reading the letter.
“I’m giving Keith a kidney,” Eaton said.
Her husband reminded her that becoming a donor was not so simple. As a nurse, she knew that. But as a family member — Koco and Nicole Henry are cousins — she also knew she would jump through a million hoops if it meant saving Keith.
“I know what it means when your kidneys are failing, and you have to go on dialysis,” Eaton said. “I know what that means for Keith. I know what that means for the Henry family, and I know that he had a lot more living to do, and this should not be how his life went.
“And I knew I could fix it.”
Eaton knew she and Keith shared the same blood type. Eaton texted Nicole to let her know she wanted to go through the testing required to see whether she would be a match. She needed to have blood drawn, and her kidneys had to be tested to make sure they were healthy enough for donation.
So blood was sent to the transplant center in Charlotte. Next, Eaton’s blood and Keith’s blood were tested together to see whether they were compatible. Keith and Eaton learned they were a match in the spring. Doctors had initially told Keith it could take four to five years to find a kidney. Here, he had a willing donor within months.
“I dropped to my knees, and I prayed about it, and I said, ‘Lord. Thank you,'” Keith said. “Once I found out, there’s a lot of other things behind the scenes that you had to go through. They had to check everything. You think you’re close, but you’re not really close yet.”
Eaton had to travel to Charlotte in early May to undergo a full range of physicals, full body tests and social work appointments to make sure she was in good enough shape to become a living donor. The tests lasted multiple days, and included an EKG, a cardiac stress test and kidney function tests.
Once she passed, a committee at the hospital in Charlotte where the surgery would take place reviewed the case to determine whether the transplant could go forward.
On May 24, Keith and Eaton got the call. They were ready to schedule the transplant for July 14. From that point on, the Henrys referred to it as “Game Day.” Because of hospital protocols, both Keith and Eaton could only have one person with them at the hospital. Nicole and Koco sat in the waiting room as their significant others were whisked off to surgery.
K.J. was 2½ hours down the road at Clemson doing offseason workouts, but his mind was on his father. In the waiting room, Nicole took great comfort in having her cousin with her and prayed until the moment she was able to see both her husband and Eaton safe in the recovery room.
The following day, Keith and Eaton were able to see each other, and it was impossible not to envision the smiles behind their masks.
Keith refers to July 14 as their anniversary date.
“I will never forget that day,” he says.
“I texted her the other week and I said, ‘I hope you never get tired of us saying thank you or saying how much we appreciate this gift,” Nicole said.
“I have said this before, and I will say it again,” Eaton said. “Donating the kidney really wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m very healthy. I’m very active, and I was able to save somebody’s life. I wake up every morning, and I think about Keith Henry and the Henry family, and I smile because I love them, and I know that his life is different. I’m thrilled to be a small part of that.”
THOUGH KEITH FELT an immediate difference in the days after the surgery, the first two months of recovery were particularly painful, filled with repeated trips to the doctor, blood draws and tests to make sure his new kidney was functioning properly. After three months, he was cleared to begin exercising, and he is now considered fully recovered from the surgery.
In October, the Eatons drove to Tallahassee to reunite with the Henrys for the Clemson-Florida State game. It was the first time they had seen each other since the surgery.
“He looked great, and that made me so happy,” Eaton said.
Senior Day in November took on even greater meaning. As K.J. prepared to run down the hill to the field, Nicole told herself, ‘Don’t cry, Don’t cry.’ But as K.J. came in for his hug with tears in his eyes, Nicole said she “ugly cried” on his shoulder. Keith swelled with pride.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Keith Henry said. “It’s been great that I’ve had the blessing to go see him the last two years, and I wouldn’t take that back. I wouldn’t take it back if I had to.”
For K.J., seeing his parents waiting for him only reinforced why he did what he did for his dad, a full-circle moment considering everything his parents have done for him.
“I’m supposed to look after the people around me that love me,” K.J. said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m playing at Clemson. Wherever I can help is where I need to help. That’s who [my parents] raised me to be. All the work they’ve poured into me and love over the years has just been reciprocated back.”