Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Walter Sends One From Above

I remember the day Walter died. It wasn’t supposed to happen to a guy so young, but it did anyway. He had announced within the previous year that he was suffering from bile duct cancer, but that he was convinced that with support from his family he would beat the disease.

We all had believed him, despite what our eyes told us. Walter had been diminished to a shadow of his former self. Thin, almost frail looking, there had been rumors. So while his preference would have been to remain private, the talk of aids that began circulating had forced him to go public.

I was driving down the Edens expressway when the announcement that Walter Payton had died came over the radio. It was the first week of November in 1999, Packer week, and my buddy and I were going to be driving to Green Bay that weekend for our first game in Lambeau Field. As I drove down the expressway listening to Walter’s teammates and friends talk about their fallen comrade I passed an African American man who had pulled his car to the shoulder and gotten out.

He was kneeling in the grass, head bowed, praying.

That was the kind of reverence this town had for one of it’s greatest. Walter Payton was a Bear like no other. After a tough rookie year when he missed a game with a pulled hamstring, he went on to play another 12 years. Although playing in one of the game’s toughest positions, running back for the Chicago Bears, and although running the ball on average 25 to 30 times a game Walter never missed another game in those 12 years.

There was always much talk about how strong and healthy Walter must have been to make all those games, but it was much more than that. He was tough. Walter was different than most runners in that he didn’t try to avoid tacklers so much as he tried to make sure that he was the one delivering the blow. In most cases this meant that the first guy to get to him could only hope to slow Walter down. That, and not get hurt. I never saw Walter go down on first contact, and I have no memory of ever seeing him lose a yard.

He was a Chicago Bear. Tough, committed, and hungry to deliver contact.

The Bears were bad in 1999, and the idea of losing in Green Bay the same week we lost one of our greatest was tough to consider. Farve was at his peak as Green Bay’s Quarterback, and to be honest there wasn’t much hope for our guys. It was an emotional week though, and the one thing that young team got to witness for themselves as we mourned the loss of Walter, was what it means to be a Bear in this town.

The morning of November 7th, 1999 found my pal and me outside the gates at Lambeau yelling, “Looking for two!”. It was tough; there were few extra tickets, and none with seats next to each other. We ended up buying two tickets on opposite sides of the stadium, said, “Bear down!” and went inside hoping for the best.

What a game. The team was truly inspired and played the Packers even for most of the game. Near the end, the Bears went up by a point or two and the Packers found themselves with the ball for one last drive, and time running out on the clock.

We held our breath and hoped against hope. This is where Farve excelled, and for the past decade he had been making a living as a Bear killer in just these situations. As the Pack moved down the field they pulled within field goal range with just enough time for one attempt at the three points, and the win.

The ball was snapped, the hold put in place, and the kicker stroked the ball cleanly into the air. At the last moment – the very last moment – Brian Robinson’s head appeared out of nowhere to knock the ball out of the sky. Rejected!

Bears Win! Bears Win!

The Packer’s fans looked at me like I was some sort of crazy man. “Bears Win” I shouted again, followed by, “See ya later!” as I thought it might be wise for me to beat a hasty exit. Out in the street I found my pal who came running in my direction shouting “Bears Win!”.

There are those who say that Walter knocked that ball off course that day or at the very least put B-Rob’s hand in the air. This is not entirely a nutso theory. The fact is B-Rob never did another thing of merit for the team and was out of football a few years later. People say it was Walter’s spirit that produced the win that day, and they’re right. Because of his death the team was witness to what one man can do if he works hard and makes a commitment to excellence.

Walter inspired a whole city, the idea that he inspired the team is, as they say, a no brainer.

Tomorrow: George Halas knocks on Lombardi’s locker room door.

Posted by Picasa

No comments:

Post a Comment