Beyond the Game: UWW's Lance Leipold discusses his rare eye disease

WHITEWATER -- It was a tough season for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team. For the first time in seven years, the players and coaches will sit at home, watching the national championship game, as opposed to playing in it. To be able to watch the game at all is a blessing for Warhawks head coach Lance Leipold.

There is a certain kind of vision needed to succeed in the world of sports. For coaches, it's the ability to see talent, options and what opponents and fans cannot. 

Leipold has such vision. He has been the head coach of the Warhawks for a little over five years. In that time, he has led the squad to five Division III national championship games.

Years before leading the team as coach, he led the team as the Warhawks quarterback. In his early 20s -- a star athlete with a bright future, Leipold was going blind.

"It was probably more in the sport of baseball that I noticed it. Many times in Wisconsin, we'd have winter practice in gymnasiums and I couldn't see the ball," Leipold said.

It wasn't until he was a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin that he finally learned what was stealing his sight.

"Keratoconus was what I was diagnosed with. They say it can be hereditary. You can get it in your mid 20s or in your 60s," Leipold said.

Keratoconus is a disease that affects the front of the eyeball, or cornea. The disease causes the cornea to thin and bulge. 

Leipold learned he would need a cornea transplant -- a procedure usually reserved for the most severe cases.

"I got the call on a Friday and they said 'you need to be here on Monday' and that's how quickly things happened," Leipold said.

Leipold's diseased cornea was removed and replaced with a healthy cornea from a deceased donor. The surgery eliminated the disease, but did not restore his vision. He now wears hard contact lenses and with them, Leipold says he's about as close to legally blind as one can be.

In the 20 years since his surgery, Leipold has never spoken publicly about it. Though he's always known the impact it had on his life and future, he's only recently embraced the opportunity to promote the Organ & Tissue Donor Program, to encourage others to give the gift of life if they lose theirs.

"Donation impacts so many lives - it saves lives, it heals people, it restores vision. It is so critical for people to consider the option of being a donor. Nationally, there's almost 120,000 people waiting and that waiting list is constantly evolving. Every day 13 people are added to that waiting list and every 18 minutes someone dies," Colleen McCarthy, executive director for the Organ & Tissue Donor Program said.

Thousands pass away every year because they didn't get the organ they needed, and while Leipold's disease was never life-threatening, he wonders whether he'd be where he is if it weren't for the person who chose to give, even after they were gone.

"I don't think this is one of those professions -- at least in the position I'm in now, without vision. To that family, it would be a sincere thank you - to let them know that they've helped me and my family - words could never express it because that family lost somebody in order for that to happen," Leipold said.

Leipold's mother tried to connect with the donor family, but was unsuccessful. 

During the course of this story, FOX6 worked closely with the Wisconsin Organ & Tissue Bank to identify the family. The eye bank was able to locate them, and made several attempts to reach out, but none of those calls were returned.

CLICK HERE for additional information on the Wisconsin Organ & Tissue Donor Program.