So I just finished reading a Sports Illustrated excerpt from Jeff Pearlman’s biography of NFL great Walter Payton, “Sweetness.”
Of course, “Sweetness” is sour, portraying Payton as a drug-addicted, petulant, philandering, gun-toting, employee-shooting mope he was bound to be in order to ensure Pearlman earned a sweet book contract.
I’ll likely forget all the tawdriness, save for one idiosyncratic fact now seared to my brain.
Walter Payton ate free at Wendy’s.
At every Wendy’s. Everywhere.
From Pearlman: “After meeting a Wendy’s executive on an airplane, he received a card that provided him with a lifetime of free hamburgers. ‘Let’s just say they knew him at the Wendy’s drive-through,’ says (associate) Kimm Tucker. ‘He loved those free burgers.’”
What airline was he flying? The rest of us are lucky anymore if we get a lousy bag of free peanuts.
I tried to think of what I would like to get for free in perpetuity that wouldn’t impede my life or prematurely end it. Payton died in 1999 from primary sclerosing cholangitis, which is a deadly gastro-intestinal disease and not something Payton got for free at Wendy’s.
Free beer would be the end of me and any bar foolhardy enough to extend me the offer. I’ve worked mainly for beer money my whole life. Remove my incentive to earn money and you might as well remove my liver.
Free golf would be wonderful, but playing the same course over and over again would become tedious -- and I’ll resist the temptation to extend that metaphor to matrimonial monogamy.
Really, a lifetime of free Wendy’s burgers would be hard to beat.
Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, and by 1990 he’d become America’s folksy uncle. One survey said 90 percent of Americans knew him from more than 800 commercials, more than any pitch person in television history.
I haven’t thought of this in nearly 30 years, but for a fleeting instant I actually thought there was a chance I might wind up calling the Wendy’s founder “Dad.”
It was at Ohio University in 1985. My buddies and I washed dishes at a sorority kitchen in exchange for free meals.
The sorority was Pi Beta Phi.
Just me typing the name seems like a wanton breach of social etiquette. I’m suddenly fearful some muscular Beta’s going to spring from the shadows and strangle me with my old apron.
The girls were among the most lovely on campus. They were graceful. They were refined. We felt privileged to wash their dishes.
And they treated us with decency, too.
They must have all been animal lovers to boot.
But Walter Payton and a new Wendy’s commercial has me thinking about those times that were so sudsy in ways that had nothing to do with Genessee Cream Ale.
I remember a perky brunette coming up to me at the sink and saying, “Hey, Wendy asked me to tell you she thinks you’re cute.”
She took me to the window at the swinging door and pointed way across the dining hall to an adorable, freckle-faced girl with light brown hair. “That’s her. She’s the Wendy from Wendy’s restaurant. Her dad is Dave Thomas.”
I may have been a humble dishwasher, but I was wily enough to sense opportunity.
So when I saw her in a bar I started putting the moves on her. Know what happened?
Nothing. She ignored me. She treated me the way an industrial-strength disposal treats a sink full of soggy lettuce.
Other guys would have been devastated. Not me. Feeling devastated over female rejection would have been for me like worms feeling devastated over dirt. It just went with the territory.
I didn’t think about her again until last week when I saw Wendy’s has begun running commercials featuring the real Wendy, whose name for some reason is Melinda Lou Thomas.
And the girl looks nothing like the Wendy who shut me down.
I think I was looking at the wrong girl!
Still, I have no regrets.
Instead of marrying the girl whose family owns Wendy’s, I married a girl who, in fact, used to work there. While I was pondering romance with a girl I mistakenly thought was a burger heiress, my bride-to-be was at a Pennsylvania branch asking hungry strangers, “Want fries with that?”
You know, I’ll bet I could snag free burgers if Val resumed working there again.
I’m going to see if she’s not too busy for a part-time job.