Hope and love, outside of the storybooks, so often share time with searing pain and uncertainty. And so it was with Everson Walls and former NFL teammate and life-long friend Ron Springs.
Walls suffered through the uncertainty of Ron’s initial health problems, through trying with all of his might to save him — even going so far as to donate a kidney — then through seeing that effort fall short. Ron Springs, 54, would die on Thursday of a heart attack. He had been in a coma after going into cardiac arrest in October 2007 during a routine operation, of all things, to have a cyst removed from an elbow.
But Walls’ selfless action, and the things he and Spring were able to accomplish in the brief window between Springs’ kidney failure and his descent into a coma, have had a lasting impact — even if Springs, somehow, passed anyway. The two started a foundation called the Gift For Life, and later co-wrote a book called Gift for Ron about their experience with ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone. Walls appeared before Congress to talk about organ donation.
There is no doubt in my mind that lives were saved.
Just not, of course, Springs’. That’s a devastating blow right now. For Springs’ family, who were so steadfast, and for Walls. I remember him telling me, back in 2007, as Ron entered this coma: “The last months have been trying, triumphant — heavy on my heart. I’ve just been running the gamut.”
Back then, the former Grambling and pro standout found himself leaning into a whirlwind. He decided to give a kidney to Springs, was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, mourned as his college coach passed, helped spark a national conversation on organ donation, and then watched in horror as Springs slipped into a lingering coma.
“Thank God I have faith,” Walls said. “Thank God I have support from my family, because if it wasn’t for that, I might have let all of that weigh on me.”
Walls had, indeed, remained light on his feet — cross-crossing the country to share this remarkable story, encourage support for a national donor bill introduced to Congress in his honor in September 2007 and bolster the spirits of transplant recipients, donor families and those still waiting for the next Everson Walls to come along.
“As I look back, it has surprised me what I have come through,” Walls told me. “Something that I’ve really focused on since I decided to donate my kidney: Do not take anything for granted.”
That includes the fairy tale conclusion that so many had hoped for.
Walls remained at the side of Springs, as he lay in a Dallas hospital alive but not living. Walls remained determined and hopeful. But the rewritten epilogue was messier, more real. Media outlets struggled to frame the narrative. Bryant Gumbel, hosting HBO’s “Real Sports,” admitted that producers were initially inclined to shelve an already-completed 2008 segment on Walls’ donation when Springs took the unexpected turn.
But the two men’s unordinary bond transcended even this stunning twist.
“We planned,” Gumbel said, “for our account of their relationship to stand as a tale of real selflessness and true teamwork. Unfortunately, their story took a sad and unexpected turn — one that, frankly, gave us pause about even airing the piece. Ultimately, we decided we should, because it’s still an inspirational tale about the strength of friendship and genuine love.”
That simple, timeless emotion opened up a continuing conversation on organ donation of sweeping proportions.
FRIENDS, THEN FAMILY
They were teammates on early 1980s Dallas Cowboys squads at first, then best friends, then family. Godfathers to one another’s children, their very lives were already inextricably bound. They shared a neighborhood. Their wives were close, too. In these small ways, they shared each other’s story — even after Springs retired and Walls left for a successful stint with the New York Giants, where he won Super Bowl XXV in 1991.
That same season, Springs developed Type II diabetes. Over the next 10 years, this once vibrant athlete — the former running back had led Dallas with 12 touchdowns in 1981 — saw his kidneys fail, forcing Springs into dialysis. He lost a foot to amputation. Finally both hands curled into nearly useless, withered commas, as muscular fibrosis set in.
Walls, shocked at his friend’s deterioration, began working out with Springs — hoping, he says, to help him through what ever period of time it took for a kidney donation to arrive. The search, which included two separate failed donation attempts by incompatible relatives, dragged on for three excruciating years. Springs also rejected an offer from his son, an NFL cornerback, out of fear that the surgery would end his pro career.
In early 2007, Walls decided to step in. “I used to feel like an old penny,” Springs said afterward. “Now I feel like a new John F. Kennedy 50-cent piece.” Walls never struggled with the decision, though he did at first shy away from the media attention that followed — refusing, as Springs often noted, to inhabit the hero’s cape. Walls said he hoped it would just be between the two of them, as so much always had been. Instead, his selfless act became a headline, then a call to action. “We wanted to keep it in house,” Walls said. “We really never thought about what kind of impact it would have, until we started sharing it.”
He was stopped short, however, by the passing of former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson — a towering mentor in Walls’ life who, after setting a still-standing record for Division I college football victories, succumbed to an Alzheimer’s-related illness in April 2007. Robinson’s leadership toward a better America, with a focus on overcoming adversity and becoming a citizen contributor, still resonates.
“It was funny, because when I was telling people my thoughts on this donation, I always came back to Coach Robinson’s insights into life — to his testament on being a strong black man,” Walls said. “That had a lot to do with all of this. I had been talking about Coach Robinson that whole time, and I still am. It’s given me another opportunity to uplift his philosophy.”
Walls and a rejuvenated Springs threw themselves into Gift For Life — a national foundation they founded to promote awareness of kidney disease and encourage organ donation — and that became their second legacy, away from the field and that helmet with the star. They would be teammates, brothers and friends, forever. Not just on the gridiron, but in the public consciousness.
Walls then found himself speaking before Congress in support of that House bill — called the Everson Walls and Ron Springs Gift for Life Act of 2007, after their nonprofit foundation. The proposed law hoped to establish a national organ and tissue donor registry center, authorize grants for state organ and tissue registries and create a database to help track long-term health effects for living donors.
“It went from being for one person to being something that the entire world wanted to get involved with,” Walls said, still moved. “It has touched so many people lives.”
There awaited, however, a shocking turn in a tale that rivals the dark fables of old.
Springs fell into the coma in October 2007 while undergoing elective surgery to remove a cyst in his arm. Doctors still don’t know what sent him spiraling away, though Walls says he thinks it was a reaction to the anesthesia. Springs, for years, remained physically well, Walls said, but locked in a quiet place where he couldn’t be reached.
Walls remained steadfast in his friendship, and his faith. He continued the work he started with Springs, refusing to let a moment of enduring inspiration be rendered less significant by this sad footnote.
As he says in A Gift for Ron: “Along the way I found a new purpose for the rest of mine, or it found me. It’s like John Lennon wrote: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was something my life had been preparing me for all along.”
The future generations he’ll connect with in the book might have no memory of the rest of Walls’ considerable achievements in a football uniform. Not the best-in-the-nation mark for interceptions as a senior defensive back at Grambling, nor his Pro Bowl days at Dallas in 1981-83 and ’85.
Only that he learned how to give, after being so rightly revered over the decades for snatching passes. Ron Springs’ passing doesn’t change that, can’t change that.
“This is the biggest thing that has happened to me in my entire life, including that Super Bowl,” Walls said. “As much as I take pride in my career as a player, now it’s OK for others to think of football as secondary to how I am known now. To be known for that gives me much more gratification. Hands down, no comparison.”