- Alma School District
For the family
Veteran prep coach gives kidney to cousin
By Kevin Taylor
Brooks Witherspoon's the type of person that — if a flight attendant called out over the inflight speakers somewhere over the Pacific Ocean to ask if anyone would be capable of flying a doomed passenger jet — would be the first person to raise his hand.
Afraid? A little.
Willing? First in line.
Almost two years ago this spring, when Larry Clements called out to see if someone might be willing to give his wife, Lyn, a kidney, Brooks Witherspoon flippedly raised his right hand.
“In April of 2019, we had a family reunion and it was mentioned then, and then that summer our family gathered in Florida for a funeral," Witherspoon said. "We were all eating afterward and my cousin's husband, Larry Clements, asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to give away a kidney?
"I was across the room and yelled out, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' Lyn had been on dialysis for a year at that point."
This past August, while his fellow Fort Smith Southside football coaches and players were gasping for air amid the hot sun careening off the scorching turf at Jim Rowland Stadium, Brooks Witherspoon — two weeks shy of his 65th birthday — was being wheeled into surgery at Oklahoma City Medical Center.
He was giving his cousin Lyn Ellen Clements one of his working kidneys.
“The transplant people told me they've never seen anybody at 65 so healthy,” Clements said from her Yukon, Okla. home. “My kidney function is completely normal now. When I was on dialysis, my kidneys were failing. I had lost my sense of taste. But I was lucky because I didn't have diabetes; that makes it harder. It's a miracle.
“There are so many people that need kidneys.”
Brooks and the former Lyn Ellen Jones go back to the idealistic 1950s. Raised in Little Rock, just up the street from Scott Field, the Parkview graduate had something other neighbors (and cousins) didn’t during the steamy summer months in Pulaski County — a swimming pool.
“When we were little, the only vacation we ever took was with Brooks’ family over in Little Rock,” remembers Clements, 67. “We would play, sing and dance, and we would swim. Brooks had a family pool, and that was unheard of back then.”
Wonder Boy star
A standout college baseball player for Arkansas Tech, Witherspoon set batting records while at ATU before becoming locked in on his coaching future.
“Physically, I was always as big as anybody but mentally and socially, I grew quite a bit in college, and my wife had a lot to do with that also,” Witherspoon said. “When I met her and started dating, that helped me stay focused.”
Witherspoon said his wife, Cara Witherspoon, is the smartest person he’s ever known. Witherspoon graduated from Sylvan Hills High School in 1975 and was an Arkansas Tech cheerleader.
“She was a stud,” Brooks Witherspoon said. “She never made a ‘B,’ from the first grade all the way through college. How many people can make that claim?”
Success followed Witherspoon into the coaching ranks, too. He was part of Alma’s last two state football championship victories (1997-98), was there for two state baseball titles, and embraced Cara on the turf at War Memorial Stadium following Southside’s improbable 23-22 win over Rogers in the 2006 state championship game.
Back in December of 2018, Lyn Clements was overcome with constant fatigue. She felt sluggish, always too tired to do normal things. Two months later, however, after getting a call from a physician, she learned why.
This isn’t the way she and Larry had planned to spend their glory years.
“On Feb. 19 (2019), I got a call about my condition,” Clements said. “Well, I needed time to absorb everything; I didn’t even tell my kids.”
She didn’t reveal the truth to her family until the aforementioned April 2019 family reunion.
Clements had a number of willing suitors. But no one seemed to have the right criteria.
Enter Brooks Witherspoon. The affable Southside assistant coach was more than willing.
After reading a packet about the complexity of the surgery, Witherspoon woke up one morning months after giving his blessing about 2 a.m. His mind was telling him one thing, his conscious another.
“I tossed and turned one night and got up and prayed a lot,” Witherspoon said. “It hit hard for a little while.”
In March of 2020, following the end of his basketball coaching duties only weeks earlier, Witherspoon was ready to be prodded to see if he was a legitimate fit for his cousin when all hell broke loose.
“We were supposed to get together in March, and then COVID happened,” Witherspoon said.
Despite the setback, Witherspoon was put in touch with Oklahoma City Med Center transplant coordinator Leslie Summerhill. Months earlier, in the pre-COVID world minus facemasks, Summerhill had mailed Witherspoon a packet.
He read every word.
In their first face-to-face meeting, Summerhill hit the ground running. “Her first question was what type of blood type are you? I said, ‘O-positive.’
“It just kind of went from there.”
Picking a date
“Brooks took a stress test the first week of March (2020),” Clements said. "I didn't know if he was compatible until May.”
Initially, the surgery was planned for last May, right after Brooks and Cara’s daughter Breanne’s wedding.
“But then,” Witherspoon said, arms extended, “we were still shut down over COVID.”
After missing another date in July, due to an unrelated illness to Lyn, the cousins eventually settled on Aug. 20.
Everyone gave their blessing, including Witherspoon’s bosses, from Southside principal Lisa Miller to Fort Smith Public Schools Athletics Director Michael Beaumont, to new football coach Kim Dameron. “That was a huge relief,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon remembers being wheeled into surgery. He actually waved to Lyn on the way in.
Before long, though, he was home.
Two football games later, he was on the sideline for Dameron’s first Mavericks’ football victory, a gritty 21-17 win over Russellville.
“I had the surgery on Thursday and Cara came to pick me up Saturday,” Witherspoon said. "It was a little quicker than everybody thought, but I felt pretty good.
"Really and truly, I haven't missed a beat."
“He did so much; he is the hero of this story,” Clements said. “I was just lucky and blessed.”
Witherspoon tends to disagree.
“It is not a life-ending event,” he said. “I feel completely normal. I think if more people understood that, they could save somebody in need.”