At Nick Saban’s annual Nick’s Kids charity golf event last Thursday, a worthy event for a worthy cause, many of the people who passed through the Old Overton clubhouse en route to the course asked the same questions to one another.
“How is Walt?”
“Have you heard about Walt?”
“What’s the latest on Walt?”
Walt, of course, was Walt Gary. The latest news at that time wasn’t good — Walt was in intensive care at UAB — and the news became worse by Friday morning, when Walt passed away at the age of 36.
The Sabans had been in close contact with Walt’s family through his hospitalization. Virtually everyone else, especially those from Tuscaloosa or those who had spent time here, knew Walt on a first-hand, first-name basis. Many of us had known Walt Gary since childhood, had watched him grow up in this community, and know his remarkable family.
Walt had started coming to Alabama football practices when Gene Stallings was the coach. The name “Walt Gary” was trending nationally on Twitter on Friday, as his passing touched off a series of tributes from one of the country’s most promising athletic programs and from former Alabama football and basketball players ranging from former Heisman Trophy winners to walk-ons, but Tuscaloosa was home and Tuscaloosa was where Walt was happiest.
Walt, who had Down syndrome, loved Alabama’s players, not because they were celebrities but because he considered them friends. He certainly had no designs on being a celebrity himself, even if he liked attention as most people do. Most of his public persona came about because of his connection with Alabama football, high-profile enterprise that it is, but he loved all Alabama sports.
You would see him at Coleman Coliseum, which is where I saw him most often in recent years. He had predictions on those games, too. He had more friends, more people around him than most people and he didn’t always remember my name, but he would remember my picture from the newspaper and always — always — strike up a conversation. His opinions were his own and he’d occasionally pick Alabama to win by 150 points or so. He also picked up astutely on the things he heard around him, and would sometimes repeat them with fairly little filter. (Walt could be particularly tough on referees, until a gentle correction from his mom.)
One notable thing came through in this weekend’s worth of tributes to Walt Gary from those who knew him. Very few mentioned Down syndrome. None mentioned anyone feeling sorry for Walt, who had a great quality that sometimes goes unnoticed: he didn’t feel sorry for himself. He knew he wasn’t going to score touchdowns like Derrick Henry or Jalen Hurts, but he considered his contribution — making his weekly prediction for the head coach (perhaps with some occasional play-calling advice), or working at the Supe Store, or shaking his red-and-white shaker — as important, too. And it was.
That would be my tribute to Walt, a small one in a great outpouring of tributes from great figures. His life taught the lessons of empathy and of not taking for granted the blessings that you have, certainly. Those are great things to ponder, to recognize and to acknowledge.
My prediction for Walt, in return for the many predictions he offered to coaches and players and even to me now and again is this: you touched thousands of lives, and will continue to do so now that you are gone, because you lived your life to the fullest, confident and generous, the way we all should.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.