By Drew Taylor
Staff Writer

It was a tradition that lasted for years.

Every Thursday — normally a few minutes before 7 p.m. during the football season — Walt Gary would arrive at the athletic facilities at the University of Alabama. There, he would briefly meet with Crimson Tide football head coach Nick Saban to give his predictions for the game that weekend.

For Walt, a 36-year-old born with Down syndrome, being able to spend time with Saban and the players was tremendous.

“I’m proud of the coaches and players both,” Walt told ESPN in 2018. “These people are my friends and I know what they can do.”

On Thursday, Walt died after being in a coma in UAB Hospital’s intensive care unit. His grandmother, Betty Shirley, confirmed that Walt, who had a history of health issues during his life, had bleeding in his brain before his death.

“He was always so full of joy and loved the Crimson Tide,” Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne wrote on Twitter following Walt’s death. “We will miss seeing him around the department.”

On Friday, Saban released a statement on Walt’s death:

“Walt Gary was a special part of the Alabama football program and our hearts are broken by the news of his passing,” Saban said. “He was beloved by everyone on our team, in our athletic department and throughout the Alabama family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and everyone who knew and loved Walt as much as we did. The Thursday night radio show won’t be the same without hearing his game prediction and seeing his infectious personality. Walt will be truly missed.”

Walt’s mother, Betsy, told Southern Living in 2017 that having Walt changed her life.

“He really helped change my priorities,” she said. “Quickly, things that I thought were important were no longer that important.”

When Walt was in sixth grade, his mother reached out to then-Alabama coach Gene Stallings, a family friend whose son, John Mark, also had Down syndrome, to spend time with him. Stallings did one better: he would often invite Walt to football practices.

Stallings remembers how Walt was a joy to be around.

“He was just a special child,” Stallings told The Tuscaloosa News on Friday during a phone interview from his home in Texas. “I did not look at him as somebody who had Down’s; I just looked at him as a youngster that had some special needs and was a friend of Johnny’s.”

Stallings, who has known the Garys for many years, said his heart is with the family.

“It was the saddest day of my life when Johnny passed away, so I understand what all they’re going through, and my heart is heavy for them,” he said.

While a student at Central High School, Walt was voted “Most School Spirit” and also attended Crossing Points, a program for children with special needs.

For more than 20 years, he was involved with Crimson Tide football, going to practices and meeting with Saban and the team once a week during the football season. During the day, Walt had a full-time job at UA’s Supe Store.

Different players have spoken at length about Walt’s positivity.

“This kid is always happy and then when he sees a football player, it’s like he becomes more happy and when he becomes super happy, it’s like it starts to become contagious,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa told ESPN for a piece last year.

“Walt is one of the people that, in my opinion, project the spirit and tradition of Alabama football,” Saban told ESPN.

Stallings said he was appreciative of how Saban continued to keep Walt in the fold of the football program.

“That was extremely important to him because it gave him some identity, and people associated him with the football program,” he said. “What a joy it was to see him and let him be a part of that program.”

Betsy said Walt’s enthusiasm for life could be summed up in the way he always said he had “Up syndrome” instead of Down syndrome.

“He sees the cup half full instead of half empty and he’s just a positive person and that has, I think, translated to other people,” she told ESPN. “They see that in Walt.”

No funeral arrangements have been announced as of Friday.