Not all professional athletes enjoy the limelight. Or being annointed as a "role model." Or having to put up with grocery store run-ins with adoring fans.
But whether they like it or not, professional athletes are in a position that regular Joes, and more importantly, kids, look up to and admire. They have chances that many regular people do not have to make a difference in the world.
While some athletes choose the selfish road—the me-first, get-mine attitude that we often read about in the news—other athletes embrace their stature and try to make a difference in the world.
This is a tribute to two late, great NFL Hall of Famers who made an impact on me as a kid. Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton and Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke were two professional athletes who deserve to be remembered not only as great football players, but also as two gentlemen who respected and embraced their fans.
Walter Payton's legacy as perhaps the greatest running back to ever play the game of football is unquestioned.
On the field, he was known for playing the position like a linebacker—eager to deliver a blow instead of escaping one. Fans would need a double-take if Payton ran out of bounds because he finished plays like no other running back before or since.
In 1996, when I was a pudgy fourth-grader, I attended an IndyCar race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Sure, the race would be entertaining (and deafening), but the real reason my dad and I were excited was because Walter Payton would be there.
At the time Payton was a partner in Payton-Coyne Racing (now Dale Coyne Racing), and even though his presence was unpublicized, we thought we would scope out the tents for a glimpse of Sweetness himself.
We came across an air-conditioned tent with a Payton-Coyne Racing banner in front. My dad asked the security guard in front, not actually expecting a visit, if Walter could have a word with us. A minute later, Payton came outside and chatted our ears off for a good 10 minutes.
When I told him I played running back in youth football, he was quick to give me pointers.
"This is how you give a deadly stiff arm," he said as he jabbed me lightly in the chest. "Pretend like you don't see him, wait until he is right next to you, and jab him like you're in the boxing ring."
Hard to think of a better person to learn a stiff arm from—his blows often made defenders scared to tackle him.
Payton talked about how intense Bears-Packers games were, even in the '80s when the Packers struggled. He told us how much he missed the competition more than anything, which is why he found himself in love with another sport, racing.
In addition to his uber-competitiveness (have you heard about Payton's Hill?), Payton was known by his teammates and friends as the ultimate practical jokester. His penchant for lighting fireworks in rookies' dorm rooms during training camp is well-documented by former teammates (you should read his autobiography, Never Die Easy).
At his core, though, Payton was known as a fun-loving, caring person. Even today, nine years after his unexpected death from a rare liver disease in 1999, Payton's charity contributions continue to make a difference.
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which helps neglected, abused, and underprivileged children, continues to thrive, along with his other organizations and affiliations, including the United Network for Organ Sharing, the Walter Payton Liver Center, and the Walter Payton Cancer Fund.
A few years before the Walter Payton encounter, a new sports grill, Damon's, opened in my hometown Mequon, Wisconsin. The special guest for the grand opening was none other than Packers legend Ray Nitschke. As avid Packers fans, my dad and I headed to Damon's to meet one of the greatest linebackers ever.
Nitschke and his wife were actually celebrating their anniversary that night, yet his friendliness with fans was incredible. For one of the meanest defensive players in the history of the NFL, Nitschke was one hell of a nice guy.
He got a kick out of me saying I was going to play for the Packers some day. Well, at the time, I really believed it.
We talked Packers, Packers, and more Packers. He was quick to give Vince Lombardi credit not only for his football coaching skills, but also for helping make him the person he became.
He reminisced about the Super Bowl days (which only my dad could really relate to), and he even let me wear his Super Bowl II ring (which is a pebble compared to today's) and his Hall of Fame ring.
Nitschke, who died in 1998, is one of only five players to have their numbers retired by the Packers. One of the Packers practice fields is also named Ray Nitschke Field.
I recommend you read Nitschke's autobiography, "Mean on Sunday," which really gives light to his warm heart off of the gridiron. Nitschke made cameos in several different movies, including the original "Longest Yard," and "Head," which stars the Monkees. Oh, and Nitschke was a bit of a goofball himself.
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