I visited Walter Payton at his house in suburban Chicago a
couple of weeks ago and watched as the 45-year-old man who was
one of the greatest running backs in history slowly shuffled his
way into the living room. He sat beneath a vibrant portrait of
himself with a group of children. There was little resemblance
between the chiseled 5'10", 202-pound Chicago Bears All-Pro in
the picture and the Walter Payton I was looking at.
He had lost about 65 pounds and weighed less, he told me, than
he had in sixth grade. The one thing he hadn't lost, though, was
his spirit. We were working on his autobiography, Never Die
Easy, and I asked Payton if he had ever yelled at God,
questioning why someone with so much to offer had been suddenly
stricken by both a deadly liver disease and--though the public
had not been told about it in accordance with Walter's
wishes--cancer. His eyes yellowed by his malfunctioning liver,
Payton gave me an incredulous look that was backed up by strong
words. "Are you serious?" he asked. "I'm not mad at anyone,
especially God. I don't feel sorry for myself, because that's
the first step toward giving up, and I'm not giving up. I know
something good is going to come of this. I just haven't figured
out what it is yet."
Payton's mind and spirit refused to give up, but on Monday his
body did. He died at home, surrounded by family, including his
wife of 23 years, Connie, and some close friends. On Oct. 26
doctors at a Chicago hospital had given him 24 to 48 hours to
live. At his request Payton, who didn't want to die in a
hospital, was sent home. Though his kidneys had nearly shut
down, his will delayed the inevitable another six days.
When, nine months ago, Payton last spoke to the public, he asked
for people to pray for him during a press conference at which he
announced that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare and
incurable liver disease that strikes only three of every 100,000
Americans. With his son, Jarrett, now a freshman running back at
Miami, sitting next to him for moral support, Walter said he
needed a transplant. When asked if he was scared, he said
simply, "Hell, yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be?"
Payton's announcement brought 30,000 cards and letters from
well-wishers in the U.S. and 17 other countries. Nearly three
dozen letters came from people offering their liver if it would
keep Payton alive. Many letters were from children who had never
seen him play and knew him only through his annual drive to
provide toys to 35,000 of Chicago's neediest youngsters.
With a transplant, doctors said, Payton had a good chance to
survive at least two years. He made only two public appearances
after that press conference, throwing out the first pitch at the
Cubs' home opener and filming a commercial encouraging organ
donation. Then Payton did what he had done so well since he
retired in 1987 as the NFL's alltime leading rusher: He avoided
Between trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he spent
most of his time at home, occasionally walking the streets of
his suburban neighborhood for exercise or asking friends to
drive him for ice cream. He also waited for a transplant. Then,
in May, news came that he was close enough to the top of the
donor list that he needed a full physical to determine if he was
fit enough to receive a transplant. Shockingly the exam turned
up a malignant tumor on his bile duct. Doctors will transplant
organs into a cancer patient whose chances of recovery and
survival are high. "He thought he was going home with a beeper
to wait for the call and a new liver," says Ginny Quirk,
Payton's longtime business manager. "Instead he got news that he
had cancer. It devastated him. But he wanted to keep the fact
that he had cancer quiet. He didn't want people to feel sorry
Payton found himself in a medical Catch-22. Without the
transplant he couldn't get strong enough to complete
chemotherapy. But with cancer he couldn't get a transplant. A
guy who could run through men half again his weight on a
football field had found an opponent he couldn't beat. Though
doctors offered little hope, Payton continued to believe that he
was going to win. Even as his body began to fail him, his spirit
remained indomitable. "They're going to write about me in
medical journals," he promised two weeks ago.
While going through clippings on file at the Walter Payton
Foundation, an organization he founded in 1988 to help needy
children, I found an SI article from 1984. In that story Payton
was asked why he lowered his shoulder and hit defenders instead
of stepping out-of-bounds to reduce the wear and tear on his
body. "The thing about defensive players is that they want to
hit you as hard as they can," Payton was quoted as saying. "My
coach at Jackson State, Bob Hill, always said, 'If you're going
to die anyway, die hard, never die easy.' So that's what I try
I read the passage to Payton last month and he smiled. "Pretty
scary that I'd say that, huh?" he said. "It really is the way
you should run, though."
"That's the real Walter," said Kimm Tucker, executive director
of Payton's foundation. "That was the way he approached
everything--business, football, his Christmas-gift drive for
thousands of kids and even his last few months. He would never
"I have good days and bad days," Payton told me three weeks ago.
"I've had a lot of days that start good but don't end that way.
It makes it hard to plan anything, hard to keep the schedule I
used to keep. I love people, and I think they can feel that. The
love that people, the fans, have shown through letters and phone
calls makes me cry when I think about it. Those letters keep me
going. It's not often that you find out how many people you've
touched. Through all this, God has given me the chance to find
out. I wouldn't wish this situation on anyone, but I've found
real peace and understand the impact athletes have on people.
Those athletes who say they're not role models and that they
don't care never want to have that discussion with me."
As we finished talking, Payton stood to give me a hug. He was a
man's man, a tough guy who was so well-conditioned that he missed
only one game in 13 NFL seasons, a legend who doled out as much
punishment as he received. When I put my arms around him, my
hands grabbed nothing but shoulder blades and ribs.
Before I walked out of Payton's living room, he made me make a
promise: "Make sure my book is inspirational and leaves people
with some kind of lesson," he said before breaking into a weak
smile. "And make sure you spell all the words right."