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Bryan Clauson, Walter Payton were epitome of why being an organ donor is so important

Camping World 300 Qualifying

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Bryan Clauson, driver of the #41 Texaco Dodge, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Camping World 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2008 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Getty Images for NASCAR

Even in death, Bryan Clauson will live on.

The 27-year-old race car driver who was as talented as he was friendly suffered a tragedy no one – nor his family or friends – should ever have to go through.

Clauson was doing what he loved, racing last Saturday in a Midget dirt race in Kansas – a race that would ultimately be his last. Less than 24 hours after a horrific wreck, after doctors did everything they could to save him, his family bid farewell and let Clauson go to Heaven.

But as we learned Wednesday, in one of the last things of his time on earth, Clauson performed an act so selfless that far too many of us rarely think of, let alone ever do in our own lives.

Being a registered organ donor, Clauson added to an already stellar legacy as a race car driver and human being.

MORE: Bryan Clauson spirit lives on: donates organs to five transplant recipients

With God calling him home, Clauson had one last thing to do before he left us – if he couldn’t go on, he wanted to make sure that he could help others go on living themselves.

And that’s exactly what the California native did: in death, he gave the gift of prolonged life to five anonymous individuals.

Clauson’s fiancee, Lauren Stewart, and his family took to his Facebook page on Wednesday to once again thank fans, friends, competitors and everyone else for their prayers, thoughts and support in a very trying time.

Then came the big surprise, when it was revealed that Clauson not only was a registered organ donor and an advocate for organ donation, but that he had shown his commitment first-hand by donating his own organs to individuals waiting for what potentially could be a life-saving transplant for some, if not all of them.

We don’t know which of Clauson’s organs were harvested or donated – and it shouldn’t matter.

What should matter is after making the ultimate sacrifice to his sport, he made an equally ultimate sacrifice to help give prolonged life to people he had never met who otherwise may have lived shortened lives without Clauson’s gift.

Even if they aren’t race fans or maybe never even heard of Clauson – or tragically what happened to him – the quintet of individuals that received his organs will now carry a part of him with them for the rest of their lives.

And hopefully they’ll remember to thank him every day for the rest of what will hopefully be long, productive and healthy lives.

I typically don’t like to inject myself into stories like this, but I’d like to share a tale that will hopefully help you understand just how significant Clauson’s donations were.

I’m a registered organ donor; have been for nearly 20 years, dating back to 1999 – which you’ll understand why that year is so important in a few short moments.

I have friends and family members that have criticized me for the desire to donate my organs when I die. I’ve tried to explain to them countless times that if I can help someone live or extend his or her own life, I want to do so.

After all, if I can’t use those organs anymore, they’re not going to do me any good if I’m buried or cremated. Like old food, they’re just going to go to waste.

But if they’re still usable, and can help someone else – especially someone who might otherwise die – tell the doctor to get the scalpel sharpened and ready.

I had a very good friend who waited desperately for an organ transplant; in his case, it was a liver. He was on the waiting list for at least a couple of years, but a match was never found.

He was wealthy, beloved and one of the greatest athletes the city of Chicago ever knew. His name was Walter Payton.

Walter Payton

Chicago Bears great Walter Payton in one of his final public appearances, throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before a Chicago Cubs game. He would be dead just over six months later after a couragious battle with liver disease and bile duct cancer.

Getty Images

Unfortunately, even with all his wealth, adoration and notoriety, Payton could not get the thing he needed the most to continue living: a new liver.

He waited and waited and waited. Sadly, a viable match was never located.

Payton eventually got to the point where even if a transplantable liver had been found, it would have been too late as bile duct cancer eventually overtook and ravaged his once strong body until he passed away as a mere shadow of himself on Nov. 1, 1999.

I remember when Payton first announced his illness in February 1999. He looked so gaunt, so weak, so … so … sick. I can’t help but think how ironic it would have been if there had been just one Chicago Bears fan out there who would have been a perfect match, likely would have relished the opportunity to help save one of the team’s greatest players, but like far too many in the world was either too scared or too uninformed to be willing to donate still viable organs that could have kept someone like Payton alive.

In the final months of his life, Payton worked tirelessly – as much as his weakened body would allow him to – on behalf of organ transplantation and to raise awareness of why it’s such an important initiative. Because we had known each other for nearly 20 years before he passed away, it didn’t take long for Payton to convince me to become a registered organ donor – and I’ll remain one until I take my final breath.

Bryan Clauson likely never met Payton (Clauson was only 10 years old when Payton died at 45), but directly or indirectly, both understood just how important it is to be an organ donor. If things had been different Saturday in Kansas and Clauson had either survived or not even been involved in that wreck in the first place, it still would not have diminished just how important organ donation is. Or, what if Clauson had survived, but needed an organ transplant himself? Do you see how vital such actions are? They work both ways.

The racing community and his countless fans all mourn Clauson’s death and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

But in death and in giving back the most precious parting gift he could to this world, Clauson just acquired five new fans – perhaps the most important fans he’s ever made – that will cheer him on for the rest of their own lives.

Follow @JerryBonkowski