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Family maintains Payton's legacy of giving
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Updated Jun 2, 2014 1:47 PM ET
It's been a decade since liver disease did something defenders struggled to do and took down Walter Payton. Even so, No. 34 still looms large. His son Jarrett has daily conversations with him "about what I'm doing and what I should be doing as a man, as a husband. I find myself talking to him every single day." When he checks the time, it often just happens to be 34 minutes past the hour. His younger sister Brittney will notice a restaurant bill ending in 34 cents and figure it's just her dad's way of letting her know: "Hey, I'm around. I'm involved. I know what's going on." Diagnosed with a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and then cancer, Walter Payton remains a larger-than-life figure even as the 10th anniversary of his death approaches on Nov. 1. His legacy is alive and well. His family is keeping his fight to encourage organ donation going, and the latest initiative has them teaming with the Chicago
, Donate Life Illinois, and Astellas Pharma US, Inc. in the "Tackle the Shortage: Donate Life Challenge." Their immediate goal: register 5,000 donors in Illinois by the end of the year. Their long-term goal: eliminate the need for a transplant waiting list. The Paytons and Tillman, whose baby daughter underwent a heart transplant a year ago, will be part of a news conference Monday at Halas Hall to publicize the effort, and the game against Cleveland on Nov. 1 will be dedicated to Walter Payton. There will be booths and advertisements for the cause around Soldier Field, along with a halftime tribute to the Hall of Famer. Jarrett and Brittney Payton will serve as fourth-quarter captains, too. "If he was here, this would definitely be something he would be a part of," Jarrett says. "It all started from him. For us, as a family, before our dad got sick it wasn't like we knew a whole lot of people who were sick. This wasn't even in my thoughts. Next thing you know, something happens to your family member and now look where we're at. Now, we're a part of something that's big and it's helping people out. It's all about giving people another chance at life." And it's about maintaining the legacy of a man who was always a picture of durability even when he was facing his own mortality. It was there during that family meeting by the fireplace in the basement that fall night. Walter Payton, who missed only one game in his career and retired as the NFL's all-time rushing leader, had some terrible news for his children. He told them he had PSC, a disease that causes inflammation and hardening of the bile duct, and needed a new liver. But what stood out to Brittney and Jarrett was their dad's resolve. He was adamant he was going to get the transplant, that he would be back to his old self in no time. Brittney, naturally, was terrified. She was 13, in eighth grade, and had never known anyone with a serious illness. "It was so foreign to us, but I remember him being so confident and telling us he was going to be OK," says Brittney, now 23 and a reporter for the Big Ten Network. "That's your dad. You just put trust in your parents. And you think, 'He's dad. He's going to be fine. He's Superman."' The transplant never happened because soon after, Walter Payton was diagnosed with cancer that made him ineligible and ultimately took his life about a year after that meeting. What it didn't do was stop him from launching his fight for organ donations, a fight that might have been sparked by Jarrett's announcement he was going to play at the University of Miami. Already losing weight and reluctant to clue in the rest of the world, Walter Payton didn't want to accompany his son, but gave in after more than a little prodding from Jarrett. The speculation ramped up after that appearance, but rather than retreat, he stepped forward. As his health failed, Walter Payton launched an all-out effort to encourage donations through commercials and public appearances. He wrote about his battle with liver disease in his autobiography "Never Die Easy." "Letting people know, it kind of opened up the doors and you started seeing all the support people had for him," says Jarrett, a running back who has played in the NFL, Europe and Canada but currently does not have a contract. "All the stuff that he did and busted his butt and worked hard on the field and all the foundation stuff he did, he started to see what it all was for and that was all the love that he got from everybody else." It's a love that's still strong. Payton jerseys remain a common sight at Soldier Field, and when a
running back fumbles near the goal line, as
did last week against Atlanta, fans sing that familiar chorus: "Sweetness would have scored." His legacy goes beyond touchdowns, and his biggest gains are measured in something other than yards. His wife and kids keep it going through the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation, which serves underprivileged children, and through their fight for organ donation. "I think he would be so proud and I think honored that his name and his legacy continues on like this," Brittney says. "To think that someone has been gone for 10 years and his presence seems like it's just as strong, if not even stronger sometimes. I think he would be proud of us that we're doing exactly what he would be doing if he were still here." Two years after her father's death, Brittney and four other students started the Youth for Life: Remembering Walter Payton campaign when she was in high school to raise awareness among teenagers. What's happened since then is impressive: Brittney says in the past 10 years, Illinois has gone from ranking among the three worst states in donations per capita to among the best. Even so, there's much work to do. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 104,000 people nationwide are on the waiting list, but the number of transplants performed through July was just under 16,700. In Illinois, 4,700 people need new organs, according Donate Life, a coalition of agencies responsible for organ donation and registration. "We just hope the attention can be garnered by people when they realize that 10 years later, the national transplant waiting list continues to grow and people continue to die waiting for an organ transplant," says Dave Bosch, co-director of Donate Life Illinois. Brittney Payton adds, "If everyone could sign up to be a donor so they could help someone else when they leave here, there would be no list, which would be an amazing thing. The more small steps we can make toward getting to that point, the better." The charitable work, Jarrett says, will "never stop." "That's the way I want to show my kids who their grandfather was," says Jarrett, who's 28 and got married on March 4 - yes, 3-4. "They'll never be able to meet him, but through his work, can see exactly the same thing he did. Working in the same environment and doing the same thing and giving back, then they really understand who the person was."
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