by Don Yaeger
Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is this weekend. There have been many inspiring speeches delivered at the HOF over the years, but the greatest of all time occurred in 1993 when 12-year-old Jarrett Payton quietly stepped to the podium and, in a high-pitched voice, introduced his heroic father Walter “Sweetness” Payton.
Payton (in my opinion) is the greatest football player who ever lived, and the epitome of a service-directed life. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears in 1985 and broke Jim Brown’s all-time record for career rushing yards—but it’s what he did off the field that made him so special.
“My father told me when I was young that it was your responsibility, once you’ve had some success, to reach back and bring someone with you,” Walter Payton said to me.
And these were words by which he lived. Like the greatest companies in sports and business, Payton knew his audience; he often noted that many Bears fans were blue-collar workers and could only afford to attend one game a year. He decided that if they saw him in that one game, he’d give his all for them. Payton viewed his football games as a gift to whoever may be cheering for him.
“Someone gave to you, and that is why it is your job to give back,” Payton would say to me as we were writing his autobiography.
Payton made a daily effort to serve others, such as the time he took a shift from one of the Bears’ customer service representatives so that she could spend an afternoon with her family, to meeting and encouraging local underprivileged children. Service permeated every aspect of his life.
“You cannot achieve great success without being helped along the way,” said Payton. “Do anything that might make the world a better place for someone.”
Brittney Payton (L), daughter of former Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, speaks to the media alongside her brother Jarrett during the Walter Payton Man of the Year Press Conference held at the Greater Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center on February 5, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
In February 1999, during an emotional press conference, Payton revealed to the world that he had a rare autoimmune liver disease and, without a liver transplant, he would die. Later that same year, Payton contacted me about writing his book, which would discuss the great importance of organ donation.
When I initially met with Payton, his cancer had spread to other organs, and now a donated liver would not save him. He had been removed from the organ donor list and had been told that he would die in a matter of months.
Amazingly Payton was still upbeat, and he gladly shared with me important dates chronicling his illness—such as his February press conference, the day he was informed that a donated liver would not save him—and a full day set aside to film a public service announcement that encouraged viewers to sign their donor cards.
When I examined the dates, I could not believe what I was seeing: Payton had filmed his PSA three days after he had been removed from the same organ donor list that he was promoting. He’d decided to give back by giving up one of his precious remaining days, even though it would no longer benefit him.
“We all get something in life,” he explained. “It’s not worth a nickel if you don’t give it back. Some people only take; they don’t give.”
Payton passed and it was one of the great losses in the sports world…but he lives today through his two amazing children Jarrett and Brittney, who continue to live their father’s service-minded lessons on the importance of doing unto others. Payton’s advice is also practical for any organization or professional: Anyone can make a difference. Acts of service always nurture those you are helping and can also be an excellent opportunity for a company to innovate, network and for employees to make deeper connections.
As Walter Payton said, our reputations hinge upon our treatment of others…especially those who cannot pay us back. Ultimately, doing unto others can make a world of a difference for the individuals involved—including you, the doer.