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Towson's Gavin Class recovers from end of football journey to find 'enlightening' opportunity at Transplant Games

With his football journey in the rearview mirror, Gavin Class refuses to let the setback define him.

For two years, one thing defined Gavin Class. One goal motivated him. One journey consumed him. From the moment he began his recovery from a liver transplant in 2013, Class made it his mission to return to the football field for Towson.

His quest was exhaustive, and it made the news every couple of months: U.S. District Court appeal last May, ruling in July; U.S. Court of Appeals hearing in September, ruling in November.

Then, Class' road ended suddenly when the Fourth Circuit Court ruled against him, permitting Towson to prohibit him from practicing on the grounds that it was unsafe. He filed a last-ditch effort to ask the court to rehear the case, but that was denied. He would never play another college football game again.

"That's when we were just like, 'It's not God's plan to have us keep trying to pursue this,'" Class said Thursday. "I've moved on with my life and started pursuing my career, my passion."

Up until that point, Class' story had been dictated by that tumultuous journey. But like many transplant patients Class has met, he wouldn't let it end there. He has spent the last six months penning the next chapter, and he punctuated it at the Transplant Games in Cleveland from June 10-15.

With his football journey in the rearview mirror, Class refuses to let the setback define him. According to his father, Jonny, he looked toward his next goal the day after his appeal was denied.

"I felt like he was ready to move on," Jonny Class said. "We were all ready to move on, and we were ready to close that book. That whole case got strung out so long. We were glad. He was glad, and the next day, it was 'Boom.'"

In August 2013, Class suffered heatstroke during practice and collapsed. As his body temperature reached 108 degrees, his heart stopped and his liver failed. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital with a new liver.

Though he was never allowed to return to the field, Class took on the Transplant Games like he did football. In his division (males age 18-29), he earned five medals in three sports — two in swimming, two in track and one in racquetball.

After that performance, he's on his way to carving a niche for himself.

Class' relationship with the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland — which organizes the state's team for the Transplant Games — started in 2014. He, along with some of his teammates from Towson, entered the Donate Life Family Fun Run. Class named his team "You Only Live Twice."

When his football career ended, he found an announcement for the Transplant Games through the University of Maryland Medical System's liver transplant support group on Facebook. He had hoped for an event like it to fulfill his desire to compete, and when he found it, he contacted the Living Legacy of Maryland.

Latrice Price, the manager of Team Maryland, gathered 33 athletes — 30 recipients like Class, plus three living donors — for this year's Games. Living Legacy holds monthly meetings year-round in preparation for the trip every two years.

The June date sometimes makes heat exhaustion and dehydration problematic, and because of the nature of the competition, each host site has a medical facility such as the Cleveland Clinic involved. But serious incidents are rare, and in appearance, the Games are like a regular athletic competition.

"It's an opportunity for people to meet people like themselves," Price said. "We have recipients who rarely [see] other recipients, so it's an opportunity to meet people like them across the country."

Class certainly qualified. He had become so consumed by his dream to return to Towson football that he hadn't had many experiences like the Games. There, the other athletes had stories somewhat like his, but also unlike it.

After all, because of the severity of Class' situation in 2013, he immediately received a new liver. He could have died without it. Since then, though, he has met fellow patients who have struggled for months in dialysis before they obtained a transplant.

Class called the opportunity "enlightening." He encountered all kinds of peers — a 23-year-old woman from Texas with a new kidney, a teenage boy from Wisconsin who plays high-school football, a minor league soccer player who had received his new liver when he was just a few months old.

The Games are sometimes nicknamed the "Transplant Reunion," where patients renew connections every other year. Each state's team trades pins as keepsakes. Team Maryland's pin featured a crab, a Black-Eyed Susan and the state flag.

Everybody has a story, part tragedy, part triumph, from the woman whose three late sons each became tissue donors to the man whose son died in the line of duty as a police officer and became an organ donor.

When they all unite, it makes for an emotional experience.

"The day that I don't get tears or goosebumps, I guess it's time to move on and do something else," Price said. That day hasn't come yet.

As for Class, the 23-year-old believes he's just getting started. He graduated from Towson this spring and is working as a strength and conditioning assistant for coach Jay Dyer in Cockeysville.

His competitive fire still burns. After a successful Transplant Games this year, Class chatted with a member of Team USA's World Transplant Games squad. He hopes to train for the 2017 World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain, as a swimmer. He'll run track again, too, if he can. He may even give squash a try after his experience in racquetball.

More than anything, though, Class' daily workouts have a renewed purpose.

"I've always loved to train," he said. "And now I have something to train for again."

jlourim@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jakelourim

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