NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Say the name Walter Payton, and most people recall the former Chicago Bear's football glory—particularly when he broke the NFL's all-time rushing record. But Paul Swentzel and his grandson always will remember Walter Payton in another way.
A year ago, Mr. Swentzel, president of S&S Tire Inc. in Lexington, Ky., invited Mr. Payton to speak at an open house for the company's wholesale division. Eight-year-old Brock accompanied his grandfather to pick up Mr. Payton at the airport prior to his speech.
The Hall of Fame running back noticed Brock was wearing a University of Kentucky cap, took it off the boy's head, autographed it and joked: ``That's not your hat. See, right here it says Walter Payton. See, it's my hat.''
That playful episode stuck in Mr. Swentzel's mind and motivated him to join with other dealers in a Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. corporate challenge to raise $100,000 for the Walter Payton Foundation—an organization that offers financial and motivational support for abused and neglected children.
BFS and its dealers have collaborated for the charity in the wake of Mr. Payton's announcement in February that he has a rare liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, (PSC), which causes obstruction of the liver's bile ducts and ultimately leads to cirrhosis and liver failure.
The cause of PSC is unknown, and the only treatment available is a liver transplant.
Not long after Mr. Payton's public disclosure of his illness, several BFS dealers called John Gamauf, BFS vice president of consumer tire sales, asking if they could help Mr. Payton in some way. The former football star has spoken frequently at BFS dealer meetings in the past six years and also owns three race cars in the CART circuit that ride on Firestone tires.
Mr. Gamauf, who has known Mr. Payton for years, heard about the Chicago-based foundation and how it recently started to raise awareness for organ donations. So Mr. Gamauf challenged some of the tire maker's retailers and distributors to contribute to the foundation and also asked BFS to donate from its trust fund.
To encourage the effort, Mr. Gamauf set an arbitrary goal of $100,000 for the charity by the end of 1999, but he said he may continue the fundraising in 2000.
To date, BFS and its dealers have raised between $55,000 and $60,000 for the Walter Payton Foundation, he said. BFS has donated $10,000 from its trust fund to the effort.
Some dealers, like Mr. Swentzel of S&S Tire and Howard Stein, president of Target Tire in Jacksonville, N.C., have contributed thousands of dollars to the campaign.
Mr. Stein, a wholesaler/retailer, challenged each of his customers to give $34—Mr. Payton's old jersey number—and matched each donation with $34 from Target Tire.
The company has raised between $17,000 and $18,000 for the foundation. Mr. Stein feels the cause has been worthwhile, not only because of what the organization does for kids, but also because of Mr. Payton's kindness towards all people.
``I think his football career is second to his role as a humanitarian,'' Mr. Stein said.
``He doesn't need to do this. People would still know who he is if he didn't try to help needy children.''
Mr. Payton played for the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1987 and rushed for more than 16,000 yards during his career. He started the foundation in 1989.
In 1998, the organization provided Christmas gifts to more than 34,000 children who are wards of the state of Illinois.
Mr. Payton currently is on the waiting list for a liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic, Mr. Gamauf said.