Ex-Michigan State star Kanu surges 'into storm' as nurse practitioner against COVID

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Sorie Kanu understands a little something about achieving what some might see as impossible.

He was on the field that November afternoon in 1998 when Michigan State was plodding through a disappointing season and headed to Columbus as an overwhelming underdog to Ohio State, the No. 1 team in the nation.

The Spartans were a .500 team under coach Nick Saban and expected to be nothing more than a speed bump on the Buckeyes’ road to a potential national championship. Few could have predicted what happened that day as Michigan State shocked the college football world.

Former MSU safety Sorie Kanu, who tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be isolated from his family, works as a nurse practitioner at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

Kanu, a senior safety, had 12 tackles in a game that was clinched when cornerback Renaldo Hill intercepted a Joe Germaine pass near the goal line with just more than a minute to play.

“We had to come in today as the squirts who had to pick a fight with the bully,” Saban said that day after Michigan State’s 28-24 victory. “Not that we wanted to pick one, but it was on the schedule, so we had to do it. We played the game like we had nothing to lose.”

A new opponent

Fast forward more than 20 years and Kanu is, once again, fighting a formidable foe. Only this time, there is something to lose.

As a nurse practitioner, Kanu is on the front lines, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic the same way he did opposing quarterbacks during his days on the football field.

“Just like when I played football,” Kanu explained, “you put on that uniform — the green and white — and we go to battle. There are a lot of things that happen within the lines of that field. Same thing in the hospital, it’s just, obviously, it is real life. We’re dealing with life and death.”

There’s not much Kanu hasn’t experienced in his work at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. Before the coronavirus hit, Kanu was part of a team that manned the surgical intensive care unit, handling trauma patients as well as general surgery and work in the cardiovascular unit.

Since the outbreak, however, his unit has been asked to work on COVID-19 floors, ramping up the intensity on a daily basis.

It hasn’t been an easy shift.

“It just challenging to balance everything that's going on within the realm of your role and caring for this patient and trying to do the best that you can do,” Kanu said. “Because I came into this position to be influential and to be in a place where I could assist those that are in vulnerable positions and are unable to take care of themselves. Now we have a huge influx of these people that has taken us by storm with the pandemic, and the challenge becomes to keep yourself safe, keep your coworkers safe, keep the patients safe and bring them to a position where they're able to get out of the hospital and get home and be healthy with their family.

“So, it's been challenging just in the sense that you do have to put on your healthcare hat as a practitioner and you have to go into the storm.”

It didn’t take long for that storm to catch up to Kanu. His son, Asan, was born on Feb. 23 and Kanu took some planned time off to help his wife, Jerren, in a house full of little ones that include three daughters —5-year-old Amel, 4-year-old Ahni, and Aela, who is 2.  

When Kanu returned to work, the pandemic hit full force and didn’t take long to smack the former safety, who still ranks eighth in career tackles at Michigan State, right on the face.

“I worked the first week, five out of seven days worked,” Kanu said. “And on that seventh day, I fell ill.”

Jarring result

Kanu tested positive for COVID-19 and spent the next 15 or 16 days isolated at home. He said he’s fortunate his house is set up where he could easily be separated from the rest of the family, however, that didn’t eliminate the fear.

Never did Kanu worry about himself. Instead, he wanted to be sure his family was safe, including 20-year-old daughter, Mia, who returned from school at Tennessee State where the campus had been shut down.

“I said, ‘God, if it just falls on me, I'm OK with that,’” Kanu said. “By God's grace, I'll make it through it. But please spare my family, my young children of this virus.”

The entire family made it through and Kanu never really hesitated when it was time to return to work. He leaned heavily on his wife, who is a psychologist practicing from home, when discussing the risks of returning to work. He also talked plenty with his father-in-law, an ER physician, and his brother-in-law, who is finishing his residency in emergency medicine.

In the end, they all agreed they needed to work because “this is what we signed up for.”

“You feel torn,” Kanu admitted. “You want to protect your family, you want to be there for your family, but at the same time, I do have a job to do that requires me to be in the midst of a disease and trials and difficulty. And now when I come home, just like probably many other people, I strip down in the garage from head to toe and walk straight to the shower. I go upstairs and get in the shower and then make sure that I'm as clean as I possibly can be.”

Sorie Kanu played at Michigan State from 1995-98.

It’s a day-to-day grind for Kanu, but one he believes he’s meant for. He likens it to that of being on a football team, overcoming adversity and never giving in, lessons he learned playing for Saban and his position coach, Mark Dantonio.

During his four seasons with the Spartans, Kanu recorded 365 tackles and as a senior in 1998 was named the team's MVP. He wasn't drafted but was signed by the Lions before being released near the end of training camp. Kanu's professional football quest came to an end after being cut from Hamilton in the CFL.

That led to his one year in coaching. When Dantonio was defensive coordinator at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, he brought Kanu on as a graduate assistant coach. That was 2002 and the Buckeyes merely went undefeated and brought home the national championship. 

“Sorie was a four-year starter and outstanding player and Captain for us in 1995 through 1998," Dantonio said. "Moreover, he is a tremendously caring and selfless individual whose work ethic, morals and faith are examples to all those whose lives he has touched. He remains very special to me and my family."

A new father, Kanu left coaching and after working in IT made the move to nursing, eventually becoming a nurse practitioner and ending up at Beaumont. 

New team, a larger goal

There’s no trophy to win now, but Kanu and his coworkers aren’t any less dialed in against their opponent.

“That’s the bigger thing, to be a part of the team that's working together for a common goal and being able to achieve that goal,” Kanu said. “I think that's one of the biggest things that I've taken away from football, just being aggressive in what you do but being controlled. We are in a battle against this virus and we have to be aggressive against it, but we also have to be controlled in terms of our emotions, in terms of how we deal with individuals that are dealing with it, and in ourselves, our own mental-emotional state.

“Like I said, this is life and death that we're dealing with. When we're on the football field it is a game but we are trying to win and you're in the trenches, and you're in a situation that, emotionally, you're up and down. Physically, you're up and down. I got COVID and I was down, but I gotta be up again because I gotta be back in the fight. So it teaches you to still keep your dog in the fight and continue to persevere and achieve that main goal.”

Kanu is buoyed in that fight by the support he and the rest of the team at Beaumont receive on a daily basis. From the signs near the entrance of the hospital thanking the staff for their work to the messages written on the sidewalk in chalk, Kanu appreciates the love.

“It’s encouraging,” he said. “It's uplifting because you can get down. Your spirits can be down at times.”

It doesn’t happen often for Kanu. A captain his senior year at Michigan State, he’s almost always upbeat, always pushing those around him to persevere, even as plenty of his colleagues have contracted the virus, just as he did. They keep showing up, though, while facing their share of death over the last couple of months.

However, Kanu says the light is starting to appear at the end of the tunnel. The cases have started to subside and he and his coworkers no longer feel overwhelmed. He hopes that trend continues. Whichever way it goes, he’ll be back to work

“With this virus main goal is to support the individuals that have it, to help them get to the other side,” he said. “To help our physicians, our executives within the hospitals, our nurses and the whole healthcare team, in terms of pressing forward and accomplishing this goal as a team and make sure that we all get through this right.

“You know, the end goal in football was to win. So, my goal here is we have to win. No matter what it takes, we have to win. I have to win.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau