STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Football players play together. They get hurt together. Sometimes even end up in a pile up together. But commentator Frank Deford says maintaining contact off the field is rare.
FRANK DEFORD: It often surprises people to learn that most teammates do not necessarily remain close friends. Their careers end, they switch teams, they move on.
Ron Springs and Everson Walls were different. When Walls came to the Cowboys in 1981, Springs was already the starting fullback. Moreover, he was pretty much the leader of the Cowboy's African-American players - a boisterous, welcoming presence, the self-appointed mayor of what he called Ghetto Row.
Walls, though, was a no-name. He not only came from a small, predominantly black college - Grambling - but he wasn't even drafted. Springs took the shy kid from nowhere under his wings, though, and Walls made the team.
Even though the two men played together for but four seasons, their friendship only became stronger. Their wives grew close; the two men became godfathers of each other's children. Springs told his son, Shawn: Don't be like me. Don't be a running back. It may be glamorous, but it's grueling, brutal work. Be a defensive back like Mr. Walls.
It was wise advice. Ron Springs only lasted eight years in the NFL, but Walls played 13, and now Shawn is in his 11th NFL season.
Unfortunately, several years after his football career ended, Ron was diagnosed with diabetes. Now it was Everson's turn to be the leader. He made his friend work out, to keep him as healthy as possible.
But the disease forced Springs into dialysis. It required the amputation of his foot. He desperately needed a kidney transplant, but there was no one in his family with the match. Almost matter-of-factly, Walls volunteered one of his, and in March, Springs gained a new life when his friend's kidney was transplanted into his body.
That had surely never happened before in sports, one old teammate saving another. But then, just to be with these two guys has been so uplifting. They wouldn't use the word - hey, they're tough old football players - but their love for another shone through all their jokes and friendly insults.
Don't call me a hero, Walls kept saying. To him, he had only done what good friends are supposed to do. It should've been such a joyous story. The two men even formed the Gift for Life Foundation to raise funds for diabetes and to promote organ donor awareness. Out of tragedy had come new purpose.
But then, last month, Springs went into the hospital to have a cyst removed from his arm. It was such a simple operation that the doctors, at first, thought it could be done with a local. At the last, though, Springs agreed that it would be better to go under. Alas, as soon as he was anesthetized, he fell into a coma. He is still there.
The doctors offer virtually no hope. The family and Springs' friends can only pray. Everson Walls visits him in the hospital. Sometimes, he says, he is sure Ron is watching him, recognizing him, that there is something still alive behind the empty eyes and the still form that holds his kidney.
It is always hardest to believe that an athlete's great body can fail him. We cling so hard to the memories of men on the field of play, together, invulnerable for sure.
INSKEEP: Frank Deford's latest novel is the "Entitled," and he joins us each Wednesday for member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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