Fact. I used to have a shoe contract. Yeah, that still sounds every bit as absurd to me as it does to you. But, yeah. Mid-80s. I was living and working in St. Louis as a television and radio sportscaster. I was approached by a representative of a newly-launched athletic shoe company named “Kangaroos.” They were sharp enough kicks, especially for the era. White, with red ‘Roos on both sides of the heels.
Enter Big Money. Rep tells me Kangaroos will pay me fifteen dollars a week to wear their shoes. I asked my tv station management if they were ok with this. They were. (It was a different time.) So I’ve got some sharp (and free) shoes on my feet and fifteen bucks a week in my pocket. Life is good!
‘Roos were headquartered in East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the bridge from my office on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. One of the leading investors in Kangaroos, and the face of the company’s marketing campaign, was Walter Payton, who was nearing the end of his legendary NFL career. Part of my commitment to ‘Roos was that I played on the company’s traveling summer basketball team. Lotsa high school gyms, and lots of fun, too. In addition to Walter, the team had several other active or recently retired NFL players, most of them from the St. Louis Cardinals. Guys I knew and liked. Let me state for the record that Al “Bubba” Baker could have played in the NBA. Easily. For a long time.
But I digress. I was introduced to Walter, who worked me over unmercifully about being a tv foof and questioned whether I was worth 15 bucks a week to the company. (I was questioning the same thing.) But, hey, I’m on the same basketball team with Walter Payton! Two games a week. Team ‘Roos had a “platoon” substitution rotation. Five guys would go out. Five guys would come in. I was in Walter’s platoon. So we were on the court together when we weren’t on the bench together. Always.
Here was the greatest thing about Walter. He was never childish. But he was always child-like, and just loved having fun. So here was the deal. Walter would sit down next to me while we were on the bench. He would try to distract me. And then he would attempt to tie my shoelaces together. No stretch. He must have done this two dozen times. I would just turn and look at him. Really?
I cried when Walter got sick. I lost it when he died. I’ll never forget his answer to a reporter who asked him if his cancer diagnosis had made him afraid. “Of course. Wouldn’t you be?”
That was a man. Sweetness.