By Matt Nestor
For Connie Payton, it is an easy yes when asked to participate in an event to help raise awareness for organ and tissue donors.
Her husband, Walter Payton, who was one of the greatest football players ever, passed away from complications from a liver disease that was in the advanced stages, meaning a transplant was not a viable option.
But despite his own setback, he and his family spent his final days as an advocate for organ and tissue donors before he passed on Nov. 1, 1999. And his family continues that fight to this day.
“When Walter was diagnosed with his liver disease and needed a transplant, it’s not something my family had even thought about,” Payton said. “We were so far removed from that, and we realized you just never know what is going to happen from one day to the next.”
But she said his illness and his celebrity allowed the family to try to make a difference in people’s lives.
“It truly opened our eyes to being organ and tissue donors,” she said. “And the fact that Walter needing one really helped elevate the numbers in the state of Illinois really means a lot.”
And the support has not just come from Connie. It has also come from son Jarrett, who is involved in the family’s foundation, and daughter Brittney, who helped start the Youth For Life Foundation while she was in high school.
For the family, Connie said the loss of Walter was very hard. But she said that becoming involved in these charitable causes helped aid in the grieving process.
“I’m very proud of Brit, and I know her father would be, too. It was a hard thing for a 14-year-old girl who was the apple of her father’s eye,” she said. “To say, ‘What can I do? How can I make a difference?’ I think it was part of our healing process, too, to get involved in something.”
One of the most astonishing developments for the Payton family since the passing of Walter has been the support of the public.
The support has gone beyond just the love of a football player by fans, but was also evident as people came up to Connie during the Red Shoe Run to let her know just how big of an inspiration her husband was in his fight with his disease and his help raising awareness for organ donors.
“It’s a true testimony to the kind of person Walter was and how he lived his life,” she said. “How people felt, whether they met him or not. It does speak volumes to the kind of person he was and a blessing for his family.”
And ultimately, she hopes his notoriety can help continue to shed light on their work and help them make a difference in people’s lives.
“It truly is a wonderful thing to do,” she said. “If you have ever doubted that you can give back, to us, this is an easy way. We’re really proud to be a part of it. If we can save one life and make a difference, get people to not be so afraid to ask questions and see that it is a simple thing to do, then we are happy.”
From the April 13-19, 2011