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How Walter Payton’s Super Bowl ring ended up in a college kid’s couch

WALTER PAYTON
Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton runs during Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots.
(Red McLendon / Associated Press)

They have been lost and found, pilfered and pawned, paraded around bars and locked away in wall safes.

A Super Bowl ring is the most coveted prize in the nation’s most popular sport, and the Rams and New England Patriots will battle Sunday for the right to wear the newest one.

As the game has grown over the years, so has the size and splendor of the reward. The first, awarded in 1967 to the Green Bay Packers, had a single one-carat diamond set in a simple yet striking design. The latest, earned last year by the Philadelphia Eagles, had 219 diamonds and 17 green sapphires in 10-carat white gold.

Vladimir Putin may possess one of them. When Patriots owner Bob Kraft met Putin months after his team won the Super Bowl in 2005, the Russian president reportedly asked to see Kraft’s ring, ended up pocketing it, and never gave it back. Putin considered it a gift, and for years Kraft went along with that story. Eventually, however, it was reported that Kraft never intended to give it away, and the late Sen. John McCain requested the ring be returned. If it was, the public doesn’t know about it.

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There are actually lots of stories about rings disappearing for one reason or another. Some may be gone forever. Some resurface and eventually wind up back on the hand of their rightful owner.

Perhaps the strangest tale involves a party, the police, some blind luck, and one of the greatest players in NFL history.

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The ball rolled under the couch, and Phil Hong’s life took a turn for the bizarre.

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It was 2001, and Hong was winding down his college years at Purdue. He had a small apartment on campus, and a tired sofa with cracked and peeling fake leather that he’d dragged through seven moves. He had a new dog too, a rambunctious red Doberman named Bailey, who left bones and toys strewn all over the place.

Determined to get that chewed-up ball, Bailey was lying on his side and swiping his paw into the narrow space between the couch and the floor. In the process, he tore open the felt lining at the bottom of that frat-house quality furniture.

“I went down to get his ball for him, and the ring was sitting right there,” recalled Hong, 39, now a delivery manager for Dell Computers in Austin, Texas. “I instantly knew.”

This was no ordinary ring, but a Super Bowl ring. And not just any Super Bowl ring, but that of legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who had died of cancer two years earlier.

Ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl, NFL and law enforcement officials offer advice on how to spot counterfeit NFL merchandise.

“I’m sitting there on the floor and I’m just dumbfounded,” Hong said. “I’m thinking, has this thing been in this couch the whole time?”

As shocking as that incredible find was, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. Hong quickly pieced together what had happened.

Rewind to the mid-1990s, when Payton, retired from football, was a volunteer assistant basketball coach at Hoffman Estates High outside Chicago. Hong was good friends with the Abruzzo family, who hosted a team party at their house.

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Payton, less than a decade removed from his Hall of Fame career with the Bears, brought his ring to the party for the kids to pass around and try on. It was for inspiration — and also a bit of an exercise in trust. Hong wasn’t on the team or at the party, but he heard about it.

Sure enough, by the end of the night, the ring was lost. A frantic search ensued. Police were called. Suspicions took root. Nobody looked in the deepest recesses of the couch, where the sparkling ring had fallen.

The mystery went unsolved. Two years passed. As was the plan once their sons graduated from high school, the Abruzzos moved to a neighboring community — but not before unloading some of their old furniture.

“They were basically like, ‘Take whatever you need for college. Go ahead and grab whatever,’” Hong said. “So I grabbed that couch, the one that had the ring in it, another love seat that came with that, a coffee table. I grabbed whatever I could.”

That furniture adorned his various homes for years.

“It’s miraculous that with all the moves I made prior to finding the ring, that it didn’t fall out,” he said. “I had moved every single year to a different apartment for seven years. The ring could have wound up in a moving truck. Or God forbid, when I kept [the furniture in storage] at my parents’ house, they could have gotten sick of it and tossed it out.”

But Hong kept the couch and, with Bailey’s help, found the ring. Now, he had the challenge of getting it back to the Payton family. Not only was the ring of sentimental value, but it had huge actual value. (One of those Bears Super Bowl rings that belonged to William “Refrigerator” Perry, recently sold at auction for $200,000.)

Hong, a lifelong Bears fan who idolized Payton and quarterback Jim McMahon, never gave a flicker of a thought to keeping the ring.

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“There was no way I was holding onto it,” he said. “I had to get it back to the family.”

That was tricky, because he didn’t want word to get out that he had found it. He was worried someone might break into his apartment and steal it. So he hid it in the safest place he could find, and called the football coach at his high school. That was a dead end, but word spread like the wind.

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“That night or the next night, I had friends calling me: ‘Is it true?’” he said. “It was all over the Chicago news.”

Scrambling now, Hong called the University of Miami, where Payton’s son, Jarrett, was a running back. No luck there either. Finally, a friend of Walter Payton reached out and set up a meeting at the family home.

“Imagine going to Walter Payton’s house,” said Hong, who rolled up to that estate in a silver 1990 Ford Probe with a broken driver-side window. “I was just dumbfounded driving up and seeing the Payton sign on the front gate.”

What’s more, the driveway was lined with TV cameras and reporters. Standing at the front door was Payton’s grateful widow, Connie.

“I remember walking in the house and seeing the Vince Lombardi Trophy,” he said. “I’d never seen it in person. Holy cow.”

Hong’s lone regret?

“Man, I wish I could have found the ring a year or two before,” he said. “I think about that a lot. I think how nice it would be, before he passed, to know the ring was safe.

“The ring is what they work for. All the players put in so much time, so much time away from their families. That was his one and only ring.”

Well, not his only one. Connie informed Hong that her husband quietly had a replacement ring made. Now, in a serendipitous twist, both of their children would have one to keep.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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