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Payton's memory used to encourage organ donation

Updated:

CHICAGO (AP) _ Go to a Chicago Bears home game, and you'll find a former Bear great sitting at a booth, talking with fans and signing autographs.

Sure, athletes sign autographs all the time. But this is different. These Bears are signing driver's licenses in a tribute to Walter Payton.

More than 565,000 people have joined the Illinois Organ/Tissue Donor Registry since February 1999, when the NFL's all-time leading rusher announced he had a rare liver disease and needed a transplant. Since his death from cancer a year ago Wednesday, 306,771 names have been added.

There are now almost five million people on the Illinois registry, the largest in the nation.

``Obviously, the announcement by Walter that he needed a transplant and then his death brought great attention for the need for organ donors,'' said Dave Bosch, spokesman for the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois.

``I'm always somewhat hesitant about assigning either good or bad to one event or project,'' Bosch added. ``But ... there were a number of times families said, `Yes, we heard about Walter Payton. It made my family talk about it.'''

There are 71,930 people nationwide awaiting an organ transplant. Thousands more who need a transplant don't qualify for the waiting list for various reasons, including other health problems.

After he went public with his illness, Payton became an advocate for organ donation, even as his condition deteriorated beyond the point where a new liver would have helped him. He drew attention to the cause as like other afflicted celebrities have raised public awareness and money.

Michael J. Fox lobbies Congress in the effort to find a cure for Parkinson's disease. Christopher Reeve's Paralysis Foundation supports spinal-cord injury research. Doug Flutie raises money for autism, which his son has.

``I don't think it's wrong to say we capitalized on Payton's situation. I think he would have wanted to capitalize on that,'' said Sue Altman, director of the secretary of state's Organ Donor Program. ``It's kind of like when Magic Johnson (tested HIV positive).''

In November 1999, the month Payton died, 44.1 percent of the people renewing or getting their license joined the Illinois donor registry, a 2.1 percent increase from the previous month. In December, the number jumped to 45.2 percent.

``Those, for us, are fairly dramatic numbers,'' Altman said. ``We are certain that in those months, that increase is partly attributable to Walter Payton.''

Though it's been a year since his death, Payton's name is still being used. His widow, Connie Payton, filmed a commercial with Secretary of State Jesse White urging people to be organ donors.

The Bears are continuing their ``Your Autograph for One of Walter's Buddies Autograph'' program. When fans sign up for the donor registry, a former or current Bear will sign as their witness.

The team also has donated $275,000 to organ-donor and cancer research in Payton's name. Three more grants will be awarded at Sunday's game.

The city of Chicago's vehicle sticker this year has a picture of Payton walking into the sunset and the words, ``Life Goes On, Be An Organ Donor.''

And beginning in January, there will be a new Illinois license plate encouraging organ donation. The orange-and-blue plates include Payton's name and his No. 34.

There have been 958 requests for the special plates already, said Lisa Kirk, manager of the northern region office for Illinois' donor program.

``The plate will make them think about Walter Payton,'' Kirk said. ``If they haven't signed up, maybe they'll take a second look, talk to their family, get some more information and become an organ donor.''

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