Kemoeatu brothers grow closer through kidney transplant

In anticipation of this week’s Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC North battle, Brendon Ayanbadejo recently caught up with Ma’ake and Chris Kemoeatu. Brendon and Ma’ake were teammates on the Ravens. Chris, Ma’ake’s brother, was a longtime Steeler. The teams are fierce rivals, but this is a story about how a bond between brothers became tighter through a health crisis.

Ma’ake and Chris Kemoeatu share a love of family and football. They share more than most brothers, however, as one was willing to curtail his career to extend the life of the other.

Ma’ake has a Super Bowl ring, courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens. Chris was on two champions with the Steelers. But their bond goes far deeper now that the gridiron is in the past, because Ma’ake donated a kidney to Chris, even though it officially ended Ma’ake’s career.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Other family members wanted to help Chris, who had a long history of kidney problems. The family knew Chris would need another kidney. Many members offered to donate their organ, including their father.

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Ma’ake, however, insisted on being the one. His kidney was a 99 percent match. While others offered strong matches, Chris and Ma’ake were so genetically compatible that the doctors said they may as well have been twins. Chris is 6-foot-3 and was 344 pounds; Ma’ake was 6-foot-5 and 345. Both are now below 300.

Plus, Ma’ake is the oldest of seven siblings, four years older than Chris —€” though their birthdays are only six days apart. Ma’ake was born Jan. 10, 1979; Chris’ birthdate is Jan. 4, 1983.

Both played college ball at Utah and both were defensive linemen — until Chris was converted to offensive lineman. But their biggest difference came in the NFL: Ma’ake played five seasons for the Ravens while Chris played his whole career for the division-rival Steelers.

Chris was a champion first, winning Super Bowls with the Steelers in 2006 and 2009. But he was released in 2012 when Ma’ake, who’d been out of the NFL for a year himself, dropped 78 pounds and won a starting job with the Ravens, then won a Super Bowl in a final hurrah.

When his brother needed a kidney, Ma’ake was ready to hang ’em up. And he was ready to tell him how much he cared.

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"I never told my brother I loved him until the surgery," Ma’ake said. "But I was scared that I would never see him again. Even though I felt the love, I felt now was the time say it."

Chris was caught off-guard.

"It was weird to have my brother say he loved me," said Chris, who was used to Ma’ake being the older brother and tough guy. Now it’s something they regularly say to each other and the rest of the family.

Getting ready for surgery was no easy process. Both brothers had to lose 50 pounds, and Chris actually underwent an open-heart surgery procedure. It would have been too dangerous to attempt the transplant without a strong heart.

The surgery was performed successfully in Baltimore in August. The brothers, who live in Hawaii, still are in Baltimore undergoing checkups and treatments. But the recovery is going smoothly and the brothers expect to be returning home any day.