The sports world, and all of Chicago, were shocked when Walter Payton announced that he had a rare liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis in February, 1999. “To the people that really care about me, just continue praying,” a courageous, but noticeably emotional, Payton told the world that day.
I grew up watching Walter Payton highlights as I ate breakfast most mornings. I then imagined myself doing the things Walter did on the football field: stopping on a dime, plowing through a linebacker to earn a few more yards, or jumping high over defenders and landing softly in the end-zone for another touchdown. To me, he was and is, the greatest all-around football player to ever play the game. Who else can run, block, throw, catch, and even soar, like Walter Payton?
But Walter was also human. And on that day in February 1999, the human side of him was on display for the entire world to see. His voice shook, his tears flowed, and the emotion was palpable. I remember feeling incredibly sad myself, even talking about it with my parents at dinner that night.
As I think about it now, more than twenty-years later, Walter Payton’s press-conference announcing his disease to the world was the first time in my life that I saw vulnerability demonstrated so shamelessly on television. Payton was entirely real, and genuinely human. And, his example showed me that it was okay to be so myself.
Nowadays, I prefer to remember Walter Payton high-stepping his way to another touchdown rather than the aforementioned moment of him announcing his disease to the world. But it is no question that the latter had much more of an impact on my life than the former.
To be someone worth following, you have to lean-in to your fears, your thoughts, and even your emotions. We follow those who are this way because life isn’t about being put together, it is about being real. Life, after all, is messy and occasionally frightening. So, let’s smile when something amazing happens, laugh when we hear something funny, and cry when life throws us a punch.
Walter Payton did, and I became an organ donor when I turned 18 because of it.
Walter was someone worth following.