If you are a fan of American football, then last night was a pretty big night for you. It was the collegiate football championship. For the fourth time in seven years and the sixteenth time ever, the University of Alabama took home the trophy, beating an undefeated team at Clemson University with a score of 45-40.
American football is a sport accompanied by sound effects. Shoulder pads intersect with bodies and helmets crash into each other, all to move an elongated ball down a field of one hundred yards. The stands are usually filled with cheering crowds and marching bands play school fight songs while percussion sections provide rhythmic accompaniment for the cheerleaders.
The sweat and grunts, sounds and cheers, even the referee whistles are define the effort being put forth on the playing field by the players and the fans in the stadium seats. Last night, people hosted viewing parties thousands of miles away to watch the championship game. The winning coach has a salary and new contract as of today the will pay him over three times the salary of his boss, the University’s president.
So is football just about hard hitting and scoring points? It is the dream of every young football player and college athlete to make it professionally. For football, that means playing in the National Football League, better known as the NFL. In 1970 the NFL decided that football was not just about hitting and scoring. They instituted the NFL Man of the Year Award to encourage and honor players who performed volunteer work and engaged in charitable enterprises as well as their excellence on the playing field.
In the hot sticky, humid summer afternoon air in Jackson, Mississippi, heat indices often climb higher than the 100-degree Fahrenheit mark. Usually, on a weekday afternoon, though, if you drove past the local football stadium, you might catch a glimpse of a young man running up and down the steps of the stadium. Nicknamed “Sweetness”, this young man is known as one of the most prolific running backs in the history of the NFL. He once held the league’s records for most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage, all-purpose yards… the list goes on.
NFL Coach Mike Ditka once described this young man, born Walter Payton, as the greatest football player he had ever seen but even greater as a human being. Sadly, six years after being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Walter Peyton died in 1999 from a rare liver disease. In his honor, the NFL renamed their Man of the Year Award to the Walter Peyton Man of the Year Award.
Each year one person from each of the thirty-two teams in the NFL nominates someone for the Walter Peyton Man of the Year Award. The winner receives a $25,000 donation in his name to a charity of his choosing while the other thirty-one finalists receive donations of one thousand dollars each to the charity of their choice.
Walter Peyton did more than just run. He was a living, breathing humanitarian. I remember Walter for his smile and for the smiles that he left in his wake. Wherever he went, he left it a better place than we he arrived. His life is a legacy for us all to remember and try to imitate.
I will never be a running back on anybody’s team and, although I have walked up and down the very same steps Walter used to run, nobody will ever give me any record for doing so. I can try to make my corner of the world a little better, however. I can volunteer with local agencies, make donations whenever possible to charities, be a mentor, or maybe just make hats for the homeless.
The point is that it doesn’t take hard hitting to make a difference. It just takes effort. If we are to walk the walk of the talk that we do about what we believe, then we need to back up that with effort. I once knew a homebound woman who served as a chairman for a local organization that helped the needy. She could not leave her bed due to illness but she could talk so she served as the point of contact and organized their aid efforts. Stuck at home, this one woman accomplished great things using her telephone to organize and schedule deliveries and necessary meals to those less fortunate.
We all have the power to be a Person of the Year for somebody. We all can make a difference and be the change our world so definitely needs. It just takes a little bit of effort to run that wonderful race of transformation. Walter Peyton himself said: “It’s okay to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying, without giving it your best.”