The Day My Hero Died


On November 1, 1999, my hero died.

Walter Payton, the superstar running back for the Chicago Bears, was more than a football player for me. Walter was bigger than life. If there was any doubt which team I would support as a child, all doubt was removed when Walter joined the Bears in 1975. Walter was not simply an athlete who I admired both on and off the playing field, I idolized him.

So, on a cold fall evening on November 1, 1999, as I was driving along a rural county road on my way home I got the heart-breaking news on the radio about Walter’s death. Although I knew the bad news was inevitable with Walter’s inoperable liver cancer, the news of his death floored me. It’s never easy learning that your childhood hero has died, and while I thought I was ready for the bad news, I was wrong.

When I got home that night, I did not answer the phone calls offering consolation for Walter’s death from friends and family who knew how much my hero meant to me. Instead I went to my upstairs bedroom, where I sat in silence. While I was not in the mood to talk with anyone and I was yet to feel the full impact of the news of Walter’s death, my wife opened the bedroom door and placed our 11 pound bichon frise dog, Oscar, next to me on the bed. Oscar, known affectionately as “Sir Fluff Alot”, sat and stared lovingly at me. When tears finally began streaming down my face, Oscar moved closer and he began licking the tears off my cheek. Oscar would not leave my side that night.

Nothing could make the loss of my hero, Walter Payton, easy for me. But a little 11 pound bichon frise understood my grieving and as he always did, Oscar tried to ease my pain. All of the nice words of consolation from family and friends meant relatively little when viewed against the licks and loving admiration shared by Oscar that night. While friends and family fumbled with clumsy words of consolation, Oscar knew exactly what to do.

On Thursday, March 15th, 2012, I made one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching decisions of my life. After two months of deteriorating health, I decided that it was not right to allow Oscar, almost 15 years old, to suffer. Oscar was put to sleep by his veterinarian while in his favorite spot in the world: my bed in our home. Surrounded by his family, Oscar passed from this world into God’s hands.

In hindsight, I now realize that our heroes are human beings with flaws just like you and I. It’s hard to admit, but Walter Payton wasn’t perfect. My bigger-than-life image of Walter may not have always reflected the reality of a human being who made mistakes just like everyone. But if the last 14 1/2 years have taught me anything, it’s that the heroes in our lives are often staring us right in the face…just like my bichon frise on the day of Walter Payton’s death.

I cannot imagine a better friend in this world than my bichon frise, who blessed my life and those who he touched for almost 15 years. I love you, Oscar. You will be missed forever.