They sat side by side in a Portland hospital, clutching each other’s hand because the hands they usually held were in operating rooms.
They prayed in silence. They cried aloud. They drank coffee. Lots of coffee. They barely spoke, waiting for the phone to ring.
Twenty-two years of Mike Cavanaugh’s marriage had been building to this 2007 morning. Oregon State players and fans knew him as a gruff offensive line coach. Right now, he was a worried husband.
The woman next to him, Michele Langsdorf, had no plans to be here. She didn’t even know the Cavanaughs until 2005. Now her husband, Oregon State’s offensive coordinator, was donating a kidney.
Football had introduced their families. A transplant was about to bind them.
The phone rang and a sweet old lady, a hospital volunteer, called Michele to the front desk. The nurse on the other end of the line said, “Danny’s prepped for surgery.”
The second call was for Mike: Laurie’s prepped.
Another call: Danny’s kidney is out.
Another call: Laurie’s kidneys are out. Nurses snapped a photo of them. A normal kidney was the size of a fist. Laurie’s were the size of heads, 10 pounds and covered in cysts.
It went on and on. Every time the phone rang, Michele said, “Your heart just kinda goes into your throat.” Is the call for us? Is it good news or bad? The lady at the desk didn’t help matters; she couldn’t understand who the nurses wanted to talk to.
“I was ready to go grab the phone off the desk and answer it myself,” Michele said.
Finally, after his wife’s 16 months on the transplant list and his four hours in the waiting room, Mike walked to the desk one more time, grabbed the phone and listened. His shoulders relaxed. He put his elbows on the desk. He rested his head in his hands.
He hung up and turned to Michele: “It’s working.”
* * *
Danny Langsdorf called it interval training. Mike Cavanaugh considered it madness.
This spring, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator decided to get the O-line coach in shape. Trim down that waistline. He dragged Cavanaugh into the weight room and, well, let Cav take it from there.
“He’d be on, what do you call it, the elliptical? I’d be walking. ... I was in awful shape. He’s killing me. Cracking the whip. Standing behind me busting my chops.”
Then they’d move to weights. “He wanted to do like five circuits,” Cav said, “and I was like, ‘Pfft, five!?!’ I got four in and I just bolted. He’s yelling at me, ‘Get back here! You gotta finish!’”
Said Langsdorf: “He quit on me.”
Their wives joke that Cav and Danny are like an old married couple. Never timid about sharing opinions. Never willing to let an argument last.
They met in 2005, when they joined Mike Riley’s staff at the same time.
Langsdorf had grown up playing quarterback in the Pacific Northwest, played three years at Boise State before transferring back home to start at Linfield College, where his dad was head coach.
Danny climbed the coaching ladder quickly. At 27, he was teaching Edmonton Eskimos quarterbacks. By 30, in 2002, he had a job with the New Orleans Saints.
Cavanaugh was more of an underdog. Injuries derailed his college career in New Haven, Connecticut. He wasn’t going to school when he met a nurse named Laurie Gilbride. Gilbride? Sure enough, her brother Kevin was the coach at Southern Connecticut, eventually bound for the NFL.
Mike returned to school and landed a graduate assistant gig in Albany, New York, three hours from home.
“I thought we were faaaaar away from our family,” Laurie said. “Little did I know.”
They kept moving farther away, to Alma, Michigan; to Murray, Kentucky; to San Diego; then Hawaii. After six years coaching the run-and-shoot for June Jones, Cavanaugh was ready for something new.
Cav and Danny hit it off at Oregon State, spending hours together in the office, then meeting at the Langsdorfs’ on Thursday nights for drinks. Danny was 10 years younger, but he wasn’t afraid to poke holes in Cav’s rough New England exterior.
In 2006, the Beavers won 10 games for the second time in school history, but Cavanaugh had a rough year. Laurie was tired and pale. Her kidneys were failing. And they couldn’t find a donor match.
Late one night in the Oregon State football office, where he and Langsdorf composed run-game strategies, Cav diagrammed his family’s road ahead. He had two sons and a job that required 80- to 100-hour weeks. If Laurie couldn’t find a kidney donor soon, she’d have to go on dialysis and, even if she survived, her life would never be the same.
Langsdorf knew how to attack Pete Carroll’s defense. He knew how to mentor All-Pac-10 quarterbacks. He knew nothing about polycystic kidney disease. Alone in his office, he took the first step toward a transplant.
He googled it.
* * *
Laurie Cavanaugh was in seventh grade when her dad, suffering from PKD, died of a heart attack. He was 45.
Laurie’s mom took all seven kids to be tested. It’s a dominant trait. There was a 50-50 chance. Four kids were lucky. Three were not, including Laurie.
When she started dating Mike, she described what lay ahead as she aged. Cysts would grow inside and outside her kidneys, smothering them until they didn’t function.
They married anyway and started a family. The disease progresses so slowly, Laurie said, that she never felt sick. Her creatinine levels told another story.
When the Cavanaughs moved to Oregon State in 2005, Laurie’s kidney was functioning at 18 to 20 percent. Her new doctor sent her to Portland to get on a transplant list.
That’s when family and friends started getting tested. They sent blood across the country and crossed their fingers.
Laurie’s two siblings with PKD had no problems with their transplants. But she couldn’t find a match. Every time doctors mixed her blood with a potential donor’s, her blood formed antibodies.
“You don’t want an antibody to fight off a kidney,” she said, “because your body will kill it.”
Every month, four new people got tested. And every month, she got a phone call from Portland saying she’d gone 0 for 4.
“You know your time is getting short,” Laurie said. “It’s scary.”
Langsdorf didn’t tell the Cavanaughs, but he had started combing the Internet. Success was unlikely — if relatives weren’t a match, who would be? — but he wanted to try. One night he told Cav he’d done his research.
“I wanna get tested.”
In January 2007, Oregon State’s staff was in San Antonio for the national coaches convention. Langsdorf was on the Riverwalk when he got a phone call from Portland. He took a few steps and, coincidentally, he saw the Cavanaughs sitting outside a Mexican restaurant. A bit too casually, he broke the news.
“I’m a go.”
* * *
Danny and Michele were late to the hospital the morning of May 29, 2007.
Do you think he backed out, Laurie asked.
No, Mike said.
The four months before the transplant had been like a science experiment on Langsdorf’s body. He juggled spring practices at Oregon State with frequent medical procedures, including a liver biopsy.
Not only did he need to be a match, Langsdorf needed to be healthy enough to live with one kidney. His personal reservations centered on two recreational activities: waterskiing and Crown Royal.
The doctor assured him a kidney transplant wouldn’t interfere. It was a hand-assisted laparoscopic surgery.
Say that again, Langsdorf told him.
It goes like this: The surgeon cuts underneath the belly button, puts a hand inside Langsdorf’s stomach and, with the aid of a couple of cameras, snips the kidney at both ends and pulls it out.
“I’m like, you’re sh---ing me?”
Langsdorf still didn’t grasp the magnitude until he arrived at the hospital. That’s when it got real. Cav teased him for being late. Soon Danny was lying next to Laurie, receiving anesthesia. He was a little loopy when two doctors entered the room in bandannas.
“Hey,” Danny said, “you remind me of the drummer from Rush!”
Soon he and Laurie were wheeled out, and the waiting began. Four hours of Starbucks and silence. When strangers or extended relatives walked in and started a conversation, Cav barely made eye contact.
Then the critical call came: Danny’s kidney was producing urine in Laurie’s body. Two hours later, she came out of surgery and asked, “Is Danny OK?”
Big picture, yes. Short term, not so much.
“I felt like I’d been run over by a truck,” Langsdorf said.
He was bloated. Nurses told him to take it easy on the hospital food, but he hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. Oh no. That night, he walked laps in pain around the nurse’s station, one hand on his back holding his gown shut, one hand on his stomach.
“Like a pregnant woman,” Michele remembers.
Langsdorf’s goal was to be on waterskis within six weeks. He made it in five weeks and one day. His lifestyle hasn’t changed much since the transplant. The biggest change is how often he goes to the bathroom.
“And when I have to go, I have to go immediately,” Danny said. “There’s no messing around.”
Said Michele: “He’s gonna kill me for saying this, but I think that’s one of his worries about being on the sideline during the game. If you see him racing off in between drives, that’s why.”
Laurie’s recovery was more complicated. At the time of the transplant, her kidney function was 10 percent. Her color improved immediately. Her energy level increased. But she experienced multiple setbacks. Multiple nights in the hospital. Antibodies attacked the new kidney. Five years after the transplant, she got a virus that knocked her kidney function back to 40 percent.
But big picture, Laurie said, “I hit the jackpot.” She received a young, male kidney, the best-case scenario. She takes 15 to 20 pills and vitamins per day, “but it’s a minor price to pay for a normal life. You would not know I had a kidney transplant by looking at me.”
On an August afternoon, she’s wearing Husker red, standing next to the Nebraska practice field. Chongo Kondolo, starting right guard, walks by and greets her.
“It was nice meeting your family,” Laurie said.
“Thanks for taking them to the hotel,” Kondolo said.
She’s already hosted 23 offensive linemen for dinner. Yoshida chicken. She’ll have the starters over a few more times during the season.
Laurie, 56, learned a long time ago that a coach’s wife has two choices: Embrace the job or resent all the hours that go with it.
“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “It’s not an easy life. But I like it.”
On July 6, Mike and Laurie celebrated their 30th anniversary.
* * *
What do you say to a man who risked his health to save your wife? What do you do?
Start with whiskey. Every year on May 29 — and again on Langsdorf’s birthday a month later — Mike Cavanaugh gives his buddy a bottle of Crown Royal. He never forgets.
For a while after the transplant, Michele Langsdorf wasn’t sure Cav could be around Danny without bawling. Danny usually downplayed it, searching for a good one-liner.
“I always tell (Laurie) that she’s a much better woman having that kidney.”
Over the years, their families grew closer. Danny’s mom met Laurie’s siblings. Laurie stayed with Michele’s family during hospital visits. After the Langsdorfs had their first child in 2010, Laurie showed up every morning at Michele’s door with a latte.
“Which is a little thing,” Michele said, “but it was like the best thing possible.”
Then in January 2014, the phone rang. This time it was for Danny. An old colleague was taking over the New York Giants’ offense and needed a quarterbacks coach. Langsdorf, after nine years in Corvallis, couldn’t pass up a chance to work with Eli Manning.
“I was happy for him,” Mike said. “Thought it was a great opportunity.”
Laurie, sitting next to him, shoots a look of disbelief. “It was hard. Who are you kidding?”
“It was hard,” Mike said. “But I was happy for him. And I think he had to do it.”
Cav and Danny didn’t see each other much in 2014. They barely talked. It’s hard when you’re working long hours and separated by three time zones.
Then Riley got the Nebraska job. For the next month, Cav lobbied hard for a reunion.
“He was calling me about every couple hours,” Langsdorf said, “Get here!”
Langsdorf wrestled with the decision. How do you leave the New York Giants? But the chance to call plays and work with his old friends at Nebraska was too good to pass up.
He flew into Lincoln on a cold January night. Waiting at the hotel was a gruff New Englander, who hadn’t seen him in more than six months. It was late and they weren’t sure if anything was open, but they walked down P Street to Bison Witches.
Langsdorf ordered Crown. Cav drank Bud Light.
What do you say to a man who risked his health to save your wife?
For eight years, Cavanaugh has tried to nail down the answer. He’s probably never done it better than the first day, May 29, 2007, back in Portland.
Danny was coming out of surgery — still groggy — when Cav met the gurney in the hallway. He leaned down, tears rolling down his cheeks, and kissed his friend on the forehead.
“I love you, brother.”
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