By Drew Taylor
Betsy Gary remembers how after her son, Walt, was born, she believed she would never be happy again.
Walt was born with Down syndrome in 1983, as well as a slew of health problems that would require numerous surgeries throughout his life. On June 6, the longtime Supe Store employee and University of Alabama athletics fan died.
While Gary may have despaired at her son’s condition in the beginning, the person he would become changed her view.
“I felt like my life had ended, but in reality, my life was just beginning in a much better way because Walt just showed us unconditional love and what it means to be happy and thankful,” Gary said Wednesday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Gary hugged hundreds of people, many of whom wore “We Love Walt” stickers on their shirts, during a special celebration of Walt’s life at the stadium. Walt, a Tuscaloosa native who graduated from Central High School, was best known for meeting with Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and the football team every Thursday during the season to give his prediction for the upcoming game. Since he was a young boy, he had attended many Alabama football practices, first starting with former coach Gene Stallings, whose son, John Mark, also had Down syndrome and was a friend of his.
Stallings later commended Saban for keeping Walt as part of the program.
“That was extremely important to him because it gave him some identity, and people associated him with the football program,” Stallings told The Tuscaloosa News June 7. “What a joy it was to see him and let him be a part of that program.”
Saban said that while Walt’s family thanked him for all he had done for him, the reality was quite the opposite.
“Walt did way more for me than I ever did for him,” said Saban, who called Walt one of the three most inspirational people he had ever met.
Saban said there were many Thursdays when something would be on his mind — football practice not going the way he wanted it to or being worried about the upcoming game — but when he would see Walt smiling at him, it all changed.
“I always walked out that door much more spiritually uplifted than I came down those steps and it was all because of Walt and his passion he had for Alabama football, his passion he had for life and, in some kind of way, the way he made you feel to have a lot of gratitude for what you had and the opportunities you had,” Saban said.
Since Walt’s death, the Garys have heard from many former Alabama players, coaches, friends and acquaintances Walt had over the years.
“It has obviously been God-directed because one person could not have this kind of influence without it being God’s will,” Betsy said.
Likewise, Saban said he believed that while he and others would miss him, he was now in a better place, looking down on Tuscaloosa.
“When I come down those steps on Thursday, I’m going to know that there is an expectation from above,” he said.
Reach Drew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0204.