The world has lost a great role model with the death of Walter Payton.

This year, we were asked to write about one of our heroes. I looked up the definition of hero just to make sure I would be on the right track. A hero is defined as "any admirable or highly regarded individual."

Quite frankly, there are many people in my life that fit this definition. I felt like blowing off the theme and writing about something else.

Then, a few days before I had to submit this column, my wife came to me as I was working and informed me that Walter Payton had died. My eyes brimmed with tears. Walter was one of my big heroes.

Why was there a kinship with Walter Payton? I think it started with the fact that we were both the same age. I am a few months older than Walter, but we both graduated from college in 1975. Shortly thereafter, we both arrived in the Chicago area from small towns. Both of us loved football - he played it, I watched it.

But it wasn't Walter Payton's football talent that made him my hero. It was the fact that he epitomized the two words that I could use to describe him - "grace" and "dignity." Whether on the field or off, Walter Payton conducted himself with grace and dignity. Walter was truly a remarkable man.

Not Any Player

The world first came to know Walter Payton as a football player. Not any football player, but a great football player. One of the best overall football players to ever enter the game. He could run with the ball, block any defensive player, catch the ball, leap over large piles of players, kick the ball, throw it.

Even casual fans of the game know that Walter Payton rushed for more yardage in his career than any other player in NFL history, but many football fans do not know that he also threw eight touchdown passes as well.

If you ever watched Walter Payton play football, you know that he played with grace and dignity.

You never saw him trash talking, he never made big demonstrations after scoring a touchdown, he never cursed out the officials and he never got in anybody's face.

If he were running down the sidelines, he would punish the defender trying to tackle him before ever considering running out of bounds. Yet, everybody in the NFL loved and respected Walter Payton.

You may be asking, "What has this got to do with plumbing?" A lot.

I know that if each of us would follow the example of Walter Payton in his professional life and his family life, we would be better contractors and better family members.

Walter Payton had a God-given talent for playing football. Rather than squandering that talent, or simply being content with the talent he had, he worked every day to improve himself. He studied every aspect of the game and kept himself in excellent physical condition.

During the off-season, Walter Payton worked out continuously. His workouts were punishing. Not one other Bear's player could keep up with Walter's daily workouts. But this preparation paid off. In 13 seasons, Walter Payton missed one game. For that one game, he insisted he was ready to play, but the coach wouldn't let him. How many other running backs have gone 13 years without missing a game?

When Walter Payton won the league rushing title, he bought every member of the offensive line expensive watches. He made it clear that without a front line, he would never have rushed for the number of yards he did. To him, football was, by definition, a team sport.

Have you thanked everybody in your profession that has made a difference? Have you remembered them with watches or some other gift of gratitude for their hard work?

Through it all, Walter Payton was a dedicated family man, a good husband and a wonderful father. His family meant everything to him. He always spoke of his love for his family. I never heard him say a bad word about a family member. Grace and dignity.

What a lot of people didn't know was that Walter Payton was a very successful businessman. The reason for his success was that he put as much time and effort into his business ventures as he did into playing football. Always preparing, always studying, always helping out in any way he could.

After football, Walter Payton got involved in automobile racing. He joined with Dale Coyne to form the Payton/Coyne Racing Team. (It was previously known as the Dale Coyne Racing Team.)

One of my neighbors was the head of marketing for the Payton/Coyne Racing Team. When he spoke of Walter Payton's involvement, it was not of just lending a name and some money. My neighbor always spoke highly of Walter Payton. Walter was actively involved in managing the team. He continually provided input. Did the team improve? Yes, they became a much better racing team after Walter joined them.

A Role Model

When Walter Payton announced that he was sick last year, many pundits thought that he was trying to use his name and the ensuing publicity to move up on the organ donor list.

All of us who know Walter Payton as a man knew that this could not be true. He announced his illness because sportscasters were making comments about how he looked. Rumors abounded.

As it turns out, when Walter Payton announced he was sick, he no longer qualified for a liver transplant. It was too late. He knew what was in store, but he kept it to himself and his family. True grace and dignity.

I often wonder why God takes our heroes away so early. Maybe it is to remind us to live each day as our heroes have taught us.

While I never personally met Walter Payton, he still taught me many important lessons: To use my God-given talent to the best of my ability; to always study and prepare; to keep an open mind about new ideas; to thank those around me that have contributed to my success; to keep my competitors as friends, not enemies; and to love my family above all things.

I hope the example of his life will also help you in this next millennium.