How many times will you say Happy Thanksgiving today?

More to the point, how many times will you mean it?

Not in the “I’ll have a drumstick, pass the cranberry sauce and man, this stuffin’ is good” sense.

Not even in the Pilgrims and Indians sense.

Really mean it, the way Donnie Tucker means it.

He’ll mean it when he says it to his daughter, Kayla; to his “nearest, dearest Linda;” to his mother, Evelyn; and his father, Lawrence; and his twin brother and his sister, Annie. He’ll mean it the way few others can ever mean it.

Donnie Tucker, you see, didn’t know if he’d be alive this Thanksgiving.

First, who is Donnie Tucker? Today he serves as an academic administrator for the West Virginia University football team, but that is just a title for he is much more than that.

To many of the players he is their academic conscience, a man who isn’t teaching them how to block and tackle but who is helping prepare them for the life they will live in a world that is far more civilized, yet far more challenging than any they will find on the football field.

He knows. He’s been there.

Donnie Tucker was a pretty good athlete in his day, at Fairview before there was North Marion, at Potomac State, at West Virginia Wesleyan. He and his twin brother could play.

Then there was a shot at a business career, but the lure of athletics was too strong, the feeling that this was where he belonged, where he could contribute best. He coached here and there, was even a volunteer coach at Fairmont State in 1980.

He eventually joined his Grant Town friend, Rich Rodriguez, at Salem, expecting to ride the wave to the top, only to have Salem drop the program after one year, leaving him heading back to Potomac State. He thought he’d be there one year, stayed six.

Eventually, while jogging on the track at Pony Lewis Field in Morgantown, he ran into MHS coach Glen McNew, who asked him to coach for him. He went there in 1995 and Morgantown hasn’t missed the playoffs since.

He left and worked with John Kelley at University, then took over as head coach at Jefferson, taking over a stagnant program that didn’t so much as have a weight program. He didn’t win many games the year he was there, but when he came to join Rodriguez as academic advisor Jefferson advanced to the playoffs.

He felt good then but didn’t know there was a growing problem within him, sapping his strength.

His liver was diseased.

The first thought when you hear this is alcohol, but Donnie Tucker doesn’t drink, never did. Then you think one of the alphabet hepatitis diseases, but that wasn’t it, either.

About 10 years earlier he had undergone surgery to have his gall bladder removed due to gall stones. They think that a stone had dropped down into his bile duct and shut off the flow to his liver and his kidneys, beginning a nightmare that he says only he will ever know.

“People always say ‘I know what you’re going through,’ but they don’t,” he said. “No you don’t.”

He began tiring easily. Then he began losing weight. He was 210 or 215 when it started. By the time they put him in an ambulance, he had lost 100 pounds.

Fluid was building up inside him and had to be drained at least 35 times, by his count.

“First it was once a month, then every two weeks, then twice within seven or eight days,” he recalled.

Each time the fluid was drained, an infection would set it. His doctor, Sanjay Bharti at Monongalia General Hospital, with whom he became friends, told him “if we don’t get the infection under control it will kill you.”

“What I went through I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he said. “You get angry at yourself. Then you go through ‘Why me?’ I mean, I have a twin brother. Genetically we’re the same. Why did I get it and not him?”

The pain was unbearable. He was pumped full of the most powerful of drugs, morphine and beyond.

“Athletics teaches you to fight,” he said. “Because of my athletic background, I fought every day for life.”

And then they told him he needed a liver transplant.

A couple of friends volunteered to give him a part of their liver, which you can do since livers regenerate themselves. They were even a match, but Tucker had an additional problem in that he needed a new bile duct along with the liver.

“They couldn’t take that from a living person,” he said.

Rodriguez did what he could to help, using whatever influence he had behind the scenes, and Tucker is forever grateful for that.

So he waited in the hospital for the entire summer until a donor who was a match was found in September, 2007. Then it was off to the Cleveland Clinic for the transplant.

Getting the liver was easy. Finding a room at the Cleveland Clinic wasn’t.

He wasn’t even on the transplant floor. They made space for him where they could.

He had the transplant and came through it well and now, on Thanksgiving Day, he says he wants to tell his tale to all so that he can give his thanks to those who meant so much to him. He talks of the doctors here and at the Cleveland Clinic, doctors he became so close to.

“I made a couple of the transplant coordinators into Mountaineer fans,” he said.

His mother, father, daughter Kayla, his brother and sister, Dorothy Brown, whom he calls his “religious link,” those in his West Virginia athletic family, Dr. John Manchin from Farmington … he thanks them all and so many more.

It is they that he’s thankful for and to on this day and all those others whom he calls his extended family who prayed for him.

Now pass the turkey. Donnie Tucker is eating seconds this year.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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