Ex-Cowboy Walls to give old teammate Springs a kidney
PLANO, Texas (AP) — Having grown up in Dallas, Everson Walls thought he knew his way around town. Then he started playing for the Cowboys, and a third-year running back who grew up in Virginia showed him how it was really done.
Ron Springs taught the rookie cornerback where to go for free this and discount that. In return, Walls did the driving and, better yet, introduced Springs to a terrific, cheap late-night food joint — his mom’s kitchen.
Kindred spirits only a few years apart, they quickly built a friendship that went way beyond being teammates. It was so much like big brother and little brother that Springs became a regular at Walls family gatherings.
By the time Springs left the Cowboys in 1985, their wives already were good friends. Eventually, so were their kids. Everyone gets along so well that they have taken family vacations together, such as the time all eight piled into one Land Cruiser and drove from Dallas to Orlando through a rainstorm so blinding they missed their destination.
Springs is the godfather of Walls’ oldest daughter, and Walls received the same honor for Springs’ youngest. And living up to the old saying that “your family is my family,” Springs recently spoke at the funeral of Walls’ father-inlaw.
That’s close, right? Well they’re about to get a lot closer: Walls has agreed to donate a kidney to help Springs, a diabetic, regain the quality of life he has lacked for nearly three years.
The disease already has forced the amputation of his right foot and the big and middle toes on his left foot. His rotting kidney has knotted his hands, bound him to a wheelchair and forced him to get up at 5 a.m. three times a week to endure several hours of dialysis treatments.
Walls’ kidney is expected to be transplanted in March. Once the healthy one takes over, Springs can look forward to his hands uncurling, ditching his wheelchair and never going to dialysis again.
“This man has got to love me in order to give up something. He’s taking some risk,” Springs says. “It’s something you can’t explain, but something that I will always think about every day for the rest of my life. It’s like getting a new battery in a car. I’ll be able to be back to basically almost 100 percent normal.”
“A piece of me is going to be inside him and hopefully giving him a lot more life than he would’ve had otherwise,” Walls says. “To me, friendship is unconditional.”
Springs grew up in Williamsburg, a short drive from several black colleges where friends and relatives played football. He followed the teams closely but picked Ohio State for himself.
Adept at running, receiving and blocking, the Cowboys drafted him in the fifth round in 1979, a few months after Tom Landry and Roger Staubach won their second Super Bowl.
Springs became a starter in the same backfield as Tony Dorsett in his third season. At training camp that same year, he got to know Walls, an undrafted rookie from Grambling, and his roommate, another black-college alum.
“Ron would always come over and give us a bunch of [trash] about black colleges being from the Negro Leagues,” Walls says. “That’s how we started joking around and he started hanging out with us.”
During the season, they became regulars at each other’s houses. Springs was married with no kids; Walls was living with his mom and dating his future wife.
“You kind of hung with the people who did what you did,” Springs says. “We were professional beer drinkers and margarita drinkers and crawfish eaters.”
Offseasons were spent touring the state and the country together with a basketball team called the Dallas Hoopsters, which was really just a group of Cowboys paid to play at fund-raisers. Springs later took over organizing the shows.
In the summer of 1983, Springs organized a different kind of fundraiser. The beneficiary was Walls, grossly underpaid for someone who’d led the league in intercep- tions and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons. (Walls had 11 interceptions in 1981; nobody has had more than 10 since. Alas, he also was the cornerback who dove in vain when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” to send San Francisco past Dallas and into the Super Bowl in the 1981 NFC Championship game.)
As a locker-room lawyer and the de facto leader of the “Ghetto Row” clique, Springs talked Walls into telling team officials he was “mentally frustrated” and had to retire, a word chosen to avoid being fined for holding out. He instructed Walls to go into hiding, except for once-aday calls to Springs. Walls resurfaced to sign a contract that paid about four times what he was supposed to make with a hefty signing bonus.
“The guys figured out that me and him had concocted this,” Springs says. “But he got a nice new contract and we celebrated pretty good.”
Springs went to Tampa Bay for two seasons, then retired. Walls lasted with the Cowboys through Jimmy Johnson’s disastrous first season, then joined the New York Giants in 1990, the year Bill Par- cells guided them to their second Super Bowl title.
The week of the big game, Walls and linebacker Lawrence Taylor — who played Little League and high school ball with Springs in Williamsburg — spent hours trying to persuade Springs to join them in Tampa. Once he gave in, Springs drove all night, despite feeling the effects of a flu bug that wound up keeping him in his hotel room on game day.
“I was happy to see one of us finally win a Super Bowl,” Springs says.
After giving up football, Springs stayed in good shape by playing basketball a lot. But he was getting tired easily, which didn’t make sense.
A checkup revealed he had Type 2 diabetes, the most common kind. He was 34.
“I just kept working out and denying it for a while,” he says. “Then, all of a sudden, it was attacking me worse than it did most people.”
In 2004, at age 47, Springs went on dialysis and was added to the national transplant waiting list. The following year, he lost his foot, then began feeling the muscles ball up on his right arm, then the left.
Given his age, overall health and degenerating condition, he was told it would take about four years for his number to come up — unless he could find a donor on his own.
Springs immediately ruled out his children, including his oldest son, Shawn, a cornerback (Walls’ position) who had starred at his dad’s alma mater and now plays for the Washington Redskins. Springs also has a 21-year-old daughter, Ayra, soon to graduate Oklahoma State and Ashley, a high school senior.
Because diabetes is hereditary, he worries they eventually will be afflicted. He couldn’t bear the thought of taking a kidney they may end up needing either for themselves or to donate to their kids should one of them be stricken.
Plenty of friends and relatives offered to be tested, but being a donor involves far more than wantto. Requirements start with being in good health, good shape and, in Springs’ case, having type-O blood.
Springs only let two people try, a niece and a nephew. Both were perfect matches until she got pregnant and his kidney turned out not to be strong enough.
“Instead of being down on himself after two failed attempts, he wanted to just stay active to keep his mind and body strong so we started working out together,” Walls says. “As we started working out together, I said, ‘Well, look, I know my blood type is the same as his. Why not give it a shot and see what happens?’ ”
“I never tried to influence him,” Springs says. “If he was going to do it, I wanted him to do it out of the love he had for me.”
Springs warned Walls of all the painful, time-consuming tests and paperwork ahead of him. He also prepped him for a 500-question psychiatric evaluation.
“That’s the one I thought he’d fail,” Springs says, cackling.
The camaraderie among the former teammates is evident from the time Walls lifts Springs from his wheelchair and threatens to drop him onto the sofa. Throughout a 1 1/2-hour interview, there are arguments over who had various ideas first (score it 1-1) and several instances of finishing each other’s sentences.
More often, though, they build on what the other is saying, such as on the topic of the greater good their story will serve.
“What we want to parlay from this is the ability for more people to donate,” Springs says. “That’s the key.”
“When something happens with athletes, its always brings the most recognition to a certain issue,” Walls adds.
Only two other professional athletes are known to have donated a kidney: Greg Ostertag, who was playing for the Utah Jazz when he did it for his sister; and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who did so for his daughter.
“Everywhere I go, people are calling me a hero,” Walls says. “Some people are thinking it’s already happened. I just tell them to keep us in their prayers.”
Former Dallas Cowboy Everson Walls: “Hopefully [it will give Ron Springs] a lot more life than he would’ve had otherwise. To me, friendship is unconditional.”