At his best, when the darkness subsided and the sun shone brightly, Walter Payton could be spectacular. "He was addicted to laughter," says Kimm Tucker, the former executive director of Walter Payton's foundation. "When he was happy, all he wanted to do was laugh and laugh. He had many flaws. But Walter had a genuine desire to make people happy."
This is an article from the Oct. 3, 2011 issue
If fans approached him with footballs to sign, Payton first insisted on a quick game of catch. If they wanted him to shake a child's hand, Payton knelt down and engaged the youngster in a conversation about school. While traveling to Orlando for a vacation in 1996, Payton, sitting in first class, was told that a 10-year-old boy named Billy Kohler, who needed liver and kidney transplants, was on the plane, heading to Disney World courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"A stewardess comes up and says, 'There's someone who would like to meet you in first class,' " says Jim Kohler, Billy's father. "We go up front, and who's standing there—Walter Payton." He introduced himself and knelt down to Billy's level. "You've been facing a lot of adversity," Payton told the boy. "You will come through this. No matter what follows, you need to keep your head up, you need to keep fighting forward, and you need to believe. You've gone through more in your short life than most of us have in a lifetime."
Overcome by the moment, Billy began sobbing. Payton tickled him beneath the chin. "You're a hero," he said. "Just know that—you're a hero."
Billy Kohler, now 24, is a construction worker in Orlando.
For the 13 years of his NFL career, Walter Payton's life had been a well-organized, well-patterned ode to the routine of the professional athlete. During seasons the Bears made certain all his needs and wants were met. Travel plans—booked. Dinner reservations—done. Car pickup—scheduled. If he desired a newspaper, a copy of that day's Tribune or Sun-Times would be placed atop the chair before his locker. If he hungered for a hamburger and fries, a locker room kid would be sent to pick it up. If he craved a back rub, a massage therapist was at his beck and call.
Even in the off-season Payton's life was laid out for him. He and his wife, Connie, employed a live-in nanny, Luna Picart, who did most of the cooking and cleaning and helped rear their son, Jarrett, and daughter, Brittney. Payton had an executive assistant, Ginny Quirk, who answered all his calls, filed all his papers, scheduled all his appointments. His agent, Bud Holmes, handled most of the necessary filings and contacts regarding Payton's quest to own an NFL team. His accountant, Jerry Richman, handled financial matters. Quirk and, later, Tucker, managed the day-to-day running of his charity.
Now, thanks to that pampering, upon his retirement in the winter of 1988 as the NFL's alltime leading rusher, Payton found himself burdened by a realization that had struck thousands of ex-athletes before him: I am bored out of my mind. When strangers asked, he talked about how thrilled he was to be free of the burdens of football. "I'm not going to miss the pounding," he told ABC's Peter Jennings. "And the getting up at six and working out until dusk." The words were pure fantasy. He would miss it desperately. "He went from an abnormal existence as an athlete to a normal one," says Brittney, now 26. "How does anyone do that?"
Four years earlier Walter and Connie had built their dream house on 5½ acres in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Ill. It would serve as an oasis from the real world; the shooting range in the basement, the home-theater system and pool tables and fishing pond would make 34 Mundhank Road (Walter created the house number himself) a luxury address, not merely a house at the end of a street. Yet now the home felt like a prison. When he was there, Payton spent countless hours on the couch. He would call people at all hours of the day and night, looking to chat, longing for ideas.
Payton told people he was still working out, but when the final whistle blew, his obsessive devotion to fitness died. He made pilgrimages to the nearby Bob Evans for bacon and eggs, with a huge side helping of sausage, and he gorged on Benihana. After meeting a Wendy's executive on an airplane, he received a card that provided him with a lifetime of hamburgers. "Let's just say they knew him at the Wendy's drive-through," says Tucker. "He loved those free burgers."
He did not keep in regular contact with his ex-teammates or coaches and had a distant relationship with his older brother, Eddie, who had preceded him as a star in Columbia, Miss., and at Jackson State and played five seasons in the NFL. "When Eddie would call, a lot of the time Walter pretended he wasn't there," Quirk says. "He didn't have much to talk with his brother about. The bond was iffy."
Walter and Connie remained married, but it was a union solely in name. "I started working for Walter in 1987," says Tucker. "I didn't even know he was married until probably a year later. I just thought Connie was the mother of his kids." Shortly after his retirement Payton, a spokesperson for Inland Property, a real-estate firm, was provided with a furnished two-bedroom apartment on Chestnut Street in downtown Chicago. He eventually split his time between there, a 3,500-square-foot home he bought in West Dundee, Ill., and 34 Mundhank when he wanted to be with Jarrett and Brittney.
Walter's extramarital dalliances were becoming common knowledge throughout Chicago. He confided in those with whom he was close that when his children graduated from high school, he would divorce Connie [who declined to speak at length to the author] once and for all. "He didn't want the children to go through the rigors of a celebrity divorce," says Tucker. "He knew what the spotlight felt like when it was negative, and he hated the idea of Jarrett and Brittney experiencing any of that." Says his longtime friend Ron Atlas, "Walter knew that if he left Connie, all the work he'd done to his image would go by the wayside."
Quirk had been hired in 1984 to organize Payton's massive piles of fan mail, arrange speaking engagements, oversee merchandising and make sure he never overlooked a request. He had insisted on hiring a night owl, and Quirk soon learned why. He called her as often as 30 times a day. At two in the morning. Again at three and four. He asked her to look in on Holmes. He needed her to take care of something involving the children. He complained to her about Connie and confided in her about other women—not for approval, just because it seemed like she should know. "He was addicted to knowing if anything was going on—'Ginny, anybody call? Ginny, what you got? Ginny, tell me something,' " Quirk says.
The burden of loneliness and his marriage weren't Payton's only problems. As a player he had numbed his maladies with pills and liquids, usually supplied by the Bears. Payton popped Darvon robotically during his playing days—says Holmes, "I'd see him walk out of the locker room with jars of painkillers, and he'd eat them like they were a snack"—and also lathered his body with dimethyl sulfoxide, a topical analgesic commonly used to treat horses. Now that he was retired, the self-medicating only intensified. Payton habitually ingested a cocktail of Tylenol and Vicodin. In a particularly embarrassing episode, in 1988, Payton visited a handful of dental offices, complaining of severe tooth pain. He received several prescriptions for morphine and hit up a handful of drugstores to have them filled. When one of the pharmacists noticed the activity, he contacted the police, who arrived at Payton's house and discussed the situation. Payton was merely issued a warning. "Walter was pounding his body with medication," says Holmes. "I wish I knew how bad it was, but at the time I really didn't."
Back when Payton drove his own RV to Bears training camp, he used to load the rear of the vehicle with tanks of nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. At nights and during breaks in the action, players sneaked into Payton's trailer, loaded the nitrous oxide into balloons, then carried them around while taking hits. The goofy laughter could be heard throughout the training facility.
Now retired, Payton turned to nitrous oxide more than ever. Large tanks occupied a corner of his garage, and he held a gas-filled balloon throughout portions of the day, taking joyous hits when the impulse struck. "I don't think Walter was addicted," says a friend, "but he sure liked it."
Payton threw himself into as many activities as possible, hoping something would fill the void. He took helicopter lessons. He bought guns. He shopped for antique automobiles, took up auto racing and pursued ownership of an NFL team. Of his many investments, the one Payton enjoyed most was Studebaker's, a 1950s-themed nightclub in a strip mall in Schaumburg, Ill., that opened in 1983. Payton picked the location, interviewed and hired most of the staff, used his name to bring instant credibility. Before long the club was a hot spot for mostly middle-aged revelers. "That was really Walter's baby," says Quirk. "He'd be in the deejay booth spinning records, in the kitchen waving to customers from the back. He was in his element."
The nightclub's employees came to embrace Payton, who would hang out in the alley outside the rear entrance as they smoked cigarettes. He always seemed to have some sort of valuable handout—expensive cigars, $500 sunglasses—and he distributed the goods with great zest. "He was so empathetic," says Lana Layne, an employee. "There was no arrogance."
One of Payton's favorite employees was Elmer Hutson, a 28-year-old manager known to the staff as J.R. On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 13, 1988, Hutson arrived early at the bar and engaged in a heated phone exchange with Mike McKenna, a Coors Light representative. Fifteen minutes after hanging up, Hutson was summoned to see Payton. "I walk into his office, and he had a couch and two chairs up against the wall," says Hutson. "He was sitting on one chair and Mike McKenna—who came to complain about me—was in the other. I sat down on the arm of the couch. Walter had the phone to his ear, talking to Connie." In his right hand Payton was holding a 9-mm French-made Manurhin Pistolet that he'd recently purchased. As he spoke with his wife, Payton spun the gun and jokingly pointing it toward Hutson. "He twirled it a couple of times, then came back up with the gun and put it down again," Hutson says. "That's when it went off." The bullet entered Hutson's left knee, fragmenting his kneecap, and traveled nine inches up his thigh, taking out approximately two inches of hamstring and all his cartilage. It exited through the rear of the leg, leaving a three-inch hole.
Hutson fell to the floor and grasped his leg. "Was the gun loaded?" he screamed.
"Oh, my God!" Payton said. "I almost aimed higher!"
"It felt like my entire leg was on fire," says Hutson. "It was the most excruciating pain I've ever experienced." Payton immediately dialed 911 and followed with a call to his lawyer. Bar workers raced in to see what had happened. "Walter shot J.R.!" somebody yelled. "Walter shot J.R.!"
The next morning the news that the NFL's alltime leading rusher had shot an employee swept the nation, and talk radio hosts wondered whether Payton would face charges. (He didn't.) Hutson spent 10 days in Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. Payton visited him there and apologized profusely, and when Hutson returned home he was greeted by a new set of lefthanded Wilson golf clubs, accompanied by a note from Payton. "I believe Walter was genuinely sorry," says Hutson. "He was a nice man who I really respected." A year after the shooting, however, still limping and in pain, Hutson was let go by the nightclub for what, he said, was no apparent reason. He later sued Studebaker's for failing to provide him with proper health coverage, and the business—to Hutson's shock—countersued. Though he doesn't directly blame Payton ("It's a chain," Hutson says. "He was just an investor"), Hutson lost much of his fondness for his old boss. "They actually made the argument that, knowing there was a loaded gun in the room, I should have taken precautions not to get shot," Hutson says. "It would almost be humorous, were my leg not in such bad shape." Eventually the two parties settled, and Hutson says he received $209,000. He never heard from Walter Payton again.
Many of those who knew Payton were shocked by his anxiety in the lead-up to the 1993 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He was having trouble concentrating and was short with anyone who dared strike up a conversation. Some were under the impression that his apprehension had to do with Jarrett's planned speech—after struggling to decide on a presenter for his induction into Canton, Payton had chosen his 12-year-old son. But that was far from the problem.
Shortly after he learned he'd been voted into the Hall, Payton spoke with Lita Gonzalez [not her real name], a New Jersey--based flight attendant with whom he'd been in a tempestuous relationship since they'd met at the Michael Spinks--Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight in Atlantic City in 1988. "I'm coming to the ceremony," Gonzalez said. "There's no way I'd miss it."
The last thing Payton needed was to have his Hall of Fame weekend complicated and compromised. But Lita was coming, and she expected to be treated as his girlfriend. "She was insisting she be seated in the front row," says Tucker. "We said, 'Lita, are you insane? We're marketing this man as a family-friendly spokesperson. His whole image is based around decency. You will ruin him.'"
Although Walter hadn't lived at home for nearly five years, Connie was coming too. She was, after all, his wife. She had stuck by him through the tough early years; had left the comforts of Mississippi for Chicago; had endured his moods and his mischief, his intensity and his infidelity. To the press she had never once uttered a foul word about Walter. As far as the world knew, he was a dedicated husband.
Payton didn't know what to do. "His knowing both women were going to attend was first and foremost on his mind," says Quirk. "The induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is supposed to be the greatest moment in his life. And the truth is, it was probably the worst."
Before leaving Chicago for Ohio, Payton gave Quirk the thankless task of keeping Connie and Lita apart. "Four full days, and Lita and Connie were like two ships passing in the night," Quirk says. "If Connie was scheduled to come late, I'd make sure Lita was there early. If Connie was coming early, Lita would be there late. I can't describe the horror of that trip."
Quirk booked a room for Walter and Lita at the McKinley Grand Hotel, where the inductees stayed, and she also reserved a suite for Connie and the children. "I was told to make sure the rooms were as far apart as possible," says Quirk. Yet Lita was hardly placated. As far as she was concerned, this was to be her coming-out weekend as Walter Payton's significant other. She bought a new dress, had her hair and nails done, dreamed of attending all the parties and functions, of being introduced by Walter to his family members, friends and fellow inductees. "Lita had balls of steel in Canton," says Quirk. "She said, 'This is my time, and I'm going to take a stand.'"
Walter had different ideas. As the other inductees—quarterback Dan Fouts, guard Larry Little and coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh—seized the moment by attending functions and accepting congratulations, Walter spent three days cooped up in the hotel room with Lita, only emerging on occasion to make a required appearance or to visit Jarrett and Brittney in their suite. He missed a Thursday-night function that left Hall officials fuming and earned the scorn of Bears legend Gale Sayers, who blasted his attitude. Ray Nitschke, the great Packers linebacker, issued an impassioned plea to Payton to make himself more available. It didn't work.
On the morning of Saturday, July 31, Walter and Lita had a quiet breakfast in their room. Then Payton headed to the lobby. From her room Quirk was on the phone, frantically finalizing the most awkward of seating arrangements. Because Walter and Connie were still assumed to be a couple, Quirk assigned her to the front row, alongside their children; Walter's mother, Alyne; his brother, Eddie; and his sister, Pamela. Lita was one row back, two seats down from Quirk and alongside Susan Ward, a public-relations specialist who was working with Payton. "Susan was the buffer," says Quirk. "I didn't want to sit next to Lita. She was causing too much drama."
Payton was visibly nervous and unfocused, and those few in the know had little doubt about the reason. Usually smooth and suave in public, he was terrified of the potential for embarrassment. Would Lita stand up and confront Connie? Would she storm off if he mentioned Connie in the speech?
At 12:50 p.m., Jarrett rose to introduce Walter Payton as a member of the class of 1993. The boy felt his knees wobble and his hands quiver. His four-minute speech, however, was masterly. Nattily dressed in a beige blazer, white collared shirt and colorful tie, Jarrett stood behind the lectern and brought tears to his father's eyes. "This is an historic event that my dad, Walter, and the other members of the Payton family will treasure for the rest of our lives," he said in a high-pitched voice that cracked with adolescence. "My dad played 13 seasons and missed only one game while breaking all the running back records. Not only is my dad an excellent athlete, he's a role model. He's my biggest role model and my best friend. I'm sure my sister will endorse this: We have a super dad."
When Jarrett finished, his father rose and consumed him in a hug. Walter strode to the lectern, tears streaming beneath his sunglasses. He had devoted so much time to minimizing the moment, and now that the moment was at hand, he found himself being hit by a tidal wave. "Thank you ... thank you," he said as his voice broke and the applause died down. "You know, when I first got here, we made a wager who would be the first one to break down in tears, and I was the first one to say that I wouldn't, and I was the first one to say how strong I was and everything else. As it goes to show that a lot of times when you are amongst your peers such as these great athletes, you try to be something that you're not. And after hearing my son get up here and talk, I don't care if I lose the bet."
Toward the end of his remarks, with his girlfriend of five years sitting two rows away, just behind his wife of 17 years, Payton gave listeners what they expected to hear: "I want to stand up here and say that in this point of my life, that Jarrett, Brittney, and your mom, you guys will not have to worry about anything in your life no matter what the situation or how it ends... . You three will motivate me to make sure that your lives are happy and fulfilled." On the television broadcast the camera turned to Connie, who nodded appreciatively.
When the ceremony came to a close, Payton approached Connie for a hug and a kiss, then put his arms around his mother and his children. Lita, meanwhile, walked back to the hotel and plopped onto a couch in the lobby. Holmes returned to his room, and after about 45 minutes his phone rang. It was Connie. "Bud," she said, "I'd like you to introduce me to Lita."
Moments later, in the lobby of the McKinley Grand, Connie stood in front of a woman 13 years her junior. "I introduced the two of them, and they sat and talked for quite a while," says Holmes. "They were friendly, chatty. There was no hair pulling. It was very civil." At one point Connie looked Lita in the eyes and said, bluntly, "You can have him. He doesn't want me or the children."
By the time Payton arrived at the hotel, Connie and Lita had parted ways. He was shocked to learn of the meeting but not entirely surprised. Canton was a small town, and the McKinley Grand wasn't so grand. If anything, Payton felt a sense of relief. After he had tiptoed around it for so long, the truth had finally come out.
His football career done, his auto racing days over after a near-fatal crash and his dream of owning an NFL franchise having fallen through, Payton often found himself suffocated by darkness. Oh, he wouldn't let on as such. He laughed and told jokes and pinched rear ends and tried his best to come across as the life of the party. Inside, however, happiness eluded Payton in the same manner he had once eluded opposing linebackers.
Quirk and Tucker came to expect Payton's mood swings—giddy one second, despondent the next. He kept a tub of painkillers inside a desk drawer and popped them regularly. He ate greasy fast foods and gorged on fettuccine carbonara, his favorite dish. He dumped 10 sugar packs into each cup of coffee and dunked pork rinds into hot sauce. Never an imbiber as a player, Payton now drank his fair share of beer. He behaved erratically and was prone to strange and confounding moments. Holmes, his agent, recalls visiting Payton's office for a meeting. "Walter came in, and he was bouncing off the walls," he says. "He was totally incoherent, all hopped up on these painkillers. I said, 'Walter, what the hell?' He drank a couple of beers, and I couldn't believe it. Who was this person?" Convinced he was suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Payton began taking Ritalin, which had been given to him by a friend whose son had been prescribed the pills.
He turned especially forlorn during the holiday season. Payton felt the pressure of having to be everywhere at once—with Lita in New Jersey, with his kids in Illinois, with his mother in Mississippi. He said he hoped something bad would happen to him just so he would have an excuse to stay home and hide. "No matter what I do," he said, "I can't win." Payton made spur-of-the moment decisions that baffled those around him. Despite being petrified of deep water, he had once teamed with Chuck Norris in a failed attempt to break the Chicago-to-Detroit powerboat record. He hinted at a run for mayor of Chicago. He tested Quirk's and Tucker's loyalty with insults and threats and calls at all hours. "It was like having a husband," says Tucker, "without the intimacy. He was terribly lonely."
On multiple occasions Payton threatened to commit suicide—usually following a fight with Connie or Lita, or after being reminded that, despite his legendary career, he still had to worry about finances. Once, during a particularly down period, he entered the house at 34 Mundhank with a gun drawn, telephoned a friend and, crying, said, "I'm going to end it now."
"Walter would call me all the time saying he was about to kill himself," says Holmes. "He was tired. He was angry. Nobody loved him. He wanted to be dead."
The first time such a threat was made, Holmes dropped what he was doing and flew from Mississippi to Illinois to console his client. By the time he arrived, Payton's mood had swung positive. Holmes never again took his threats seriously.
Despite the urging of those around him, Payton refused to see a therapist. What would that say about his strength and fortitude? He was supposed to be a hero. Heroes didn't do therapy.
On one particularly dark day in the mid-'90s, Payton wrote a friend a letter saying that Payton needed to get his life in order and was afraid of doing "something" he'd regret. In the note Payton admitted that he regularly contemplated suicide. Thinking about "the people I put into this f---ed-up situation," he wrote, "maybe it would be better if I just disappear." Payton said he imagined picking up his gun, murdering those around him, then turning the weapon on himself. "Every day something like this comes into my head," he wrote. He was distraught over these persistent thoughts about wanting to "hurt so many others" and not thinking "it is wrong." Payton ended the letter by admitting that he needed help but that he had nowhere to turn.
In his late-night calls to Quirk, his voice was often soft and emotionless. She could usually tell what was coming. Doom. Gloom. "You won't see me when you get to the office tomorrow," he'd say. "Enjoy life without me." On one occasion Quirk picked up the phone and heard: "I'm ending it. I'm no longer going to exist. And if you think I'm not taking you with me, you're wrong."
"I usually chose to ignore those threats," Quirk says. "I never fully believed him. But it was definitely a cry for help."
On the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1999, Jarrett Payton, flanked by his parents and by Kevin Kelly, his coach at Saint Viator High, held a press conference to announce that he'd be signing a letter of intent to attend Miami on a football scholarship. "Miami is the best fit for me as a student and as an athlete," said Jarrett, a 6'2", 210-pound block of granite who had passed for 973 yards and run for nearly 1,400 yards as a senior. But the elephant in the room was Walter Payton. Beneath a pair of dark sunglasses, he looked shrunken. When a reporter asked about his slimmed-down figure, Payton lied: "I'm training to run a marathon in a year." He hoped the discussion was over. It wasn't. That evening Mark Giangreco, the sports anchor at Chicago's WLS-TV, cracked that Payton appeared "all shriveled up" and that he looked like Gandhi. "I think I could take him on," Giangreco quipped.
Though Giangreco's words were the first public comments Payton had heard concerning his condition, it was only because he wasn't paying attention. Throughout the Chicago area a rumor had been spreading that Payton was dying of AIDS. "Walter was definitely not gay, though that was being said a lot," says Quirk. "And he definitely didn't have HIV, even though every person I would deal with in Chicago was asking me about Walter and AIDS." Prompted by Giangreco's comments and at Quirk's urging, Payton came to the dreaded decision to go public with his condition.
In December '98, after months of suffering from weakness, nausea and jaundice, and undergoing a battery of inconclusive tests, he had traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Tests there revealed that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease that scars the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine to aid digestion. When the ducts are blocked, bile backs up and migrates elsewhere. The body's immune system then mistakenly attacks its own tissues.
Dr. Gregory Gores, a Mayo Clinic liver transplant specialist, told Payton that the prognosis varied based on the disease's severity, ranging from hours to live to weeks or months. "This won't get any better," Gores told him. "There's no medication or anything that we can give you to make this better." The only effective treatment for PSC is a liver transplant.
After he got the news, Payton called Connie and asked that they hold a family meeting at 34 Mundhank. The four gathered in the basement, and Walter—positive, laughing, upbeat—told his children that he required a liver transplant, and there was nothing to worry about. "I was kind of nervous, but he was Superman to me," says Jarrett. "He didn't say anything about dying. Everything was positive—'When I get this transplant, I'll be fine.' I was numb. I didn't cry, because I didn't think he'd die. I assumed the best."
In fact, Payton had zero chance of receiving a new liver: His body was being ravaged by cancer of the bile duct. It was spreading to the lymph nodes and throughout the liver. The jaundice and weight loss, neither of which are direct by-products of PSC, were damning indicators. A person diagnosed with cancer is no longer a candidate for a new organ.
Three days after Jarrett's press conference, Walter was scheduled to cohost his radio show, The Monsters of the Midday, from Carlucci's restaurant in Rosemont, Ill. He usually looked forward to the chance to sit down with Mike North and Dan Jiggetts to talk sports for four hours, but now he was visibly nervous: He planned to use the show to announce his illness. Payton had asked his assistants to be sure Jarrett would be there. What he didn't count on was the presence of Connie. Armed with her comforting smile and charisma, Connie approached her husband from behind, patted him on the shoulder and said, warmly, "I'm here." Payton couldn't believe it. Despite the on-again, off-again drama with Lita Gonzalez, he and Lita remained a couple. They spoke several times a week, and Lita had even made a few trips to Mayo to accompany Payton.
Now, standing on the stage, his wife by his side, Payton reached for Quirk and Tucker and barked, "I need to see both of you in the men's room—now!" The three retreated to the lavatory, where Payton lit into his assistants. "Why the f--- is Connie here?" he screamed. "Who the f--- told her to come to my press conference? Which one of you did this?"
Tucker was irritated and in pain—she had recently been hospitalized for a ruptured appendix—and she had spent the previous six hours finalizing Walter's speech. "You know what, Walter," she shouted, "it'd be much easier to deal with this if you were divorced! If you had done the right thing from the beginning, we wouldn't be having this problem right now, would we?"
Payton could say nothing. He marched out of the bathroom and sat down at a long table adorned with a radio station banner. Jarrett sat to his right, Connie to his left. As always, dark sunglasses guarded Walter's eyes. A black leather jacket hung from his shoulders. He gripped a microphone with his right hand and, in that familiar high-pitched voice, spoke about contracting a disease that until recently he had never heard of. "I can't lay around and mope around and just hope everything is going to be O.K.," he said. "I'm still moving and grooving." Asked if he was scared, Payton didn't flinch. "Hell yeah, I'm scared," he said. "Wouldn't you be scared? What can you do? I mean, like I said, it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands, and if it's meant for me to go on and to be around, I'll be around."
Near the end of the show, Jiggetts asked if there was anything Payton wanted to tell his fans. Payton's hands began to shake. He put his head on his son's shoulder and began to cry. "To the people that really care about me, just continue to pray," he said. "And for those who are going to say what they want to say, may God be with you also."
On April 12, 1999, former Bears fullback Matt Suhey picked up his old teammate in his Mercedes 430 and drove him to Wrigley Field. It was the day of the Cubs' 97th home opener, and Walter Payton was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. On the way to the park, Payton turned to Suhey. "Maybe I'll do this again next year," he said, "when I nip this thing." There was nothing for Suhey to say. When the prognosis was still in doubt, he could laugh as Payton cracked lines like, "This is gonna be another Brian's Song—only here the brother dies in the end." By this point, though, Suhey was well aware that, for all the hope and prayer and optimism, his friend was dying. "The cancer was severe," Suhey says. "His odds were not good."
Five months earlier, when he first learned of Payton's illness, Suhey dedicated himself to being by his side as much as possible. Though the two had been friends through the years, they were not extremely close. They spoke every so often, partnered in some business deals, traded holiday cards. When Payton became ill, however, something in Suhey changed. He had blocked for his friend for eight years, and now he needed to block once again. "Matt was loyal to Walter," said Mike Lanigan, their friend and business partner. "Fiercely loyal." Suhey accompanied Payton to the Mayo Clinic, where Payton was undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments. He still cringes at the memory of Payton's suffering. "For a guy who could take so much pain on the football field, this was a real test," Suhey says. "I've never seen anything like it. Just nightmarish." Suhey consulted with the physicians, served as a buffer between former teammates anxious to visit and a star determined to maintain some semblance of privacy. "Matt," says Quirk, "was right there when Walter needed him most."
At Wrigley, Payton was met by a handful of club officials. They presented him with a pin-striped Cubs jersey and a light-blue cap. When Payton was introduced by the public-address announcer, he strode to the mound, removed his jacket to reveal the jersey, crossed himself and spun his hat backward. The fans stood and cheered. The sun was bright, the temperature 49°. A gentle breeze blew across the field. Star rightfielder Sammy Sosa crouched behind home plate, pounded his mitt and waited for the pitch. With all the energy he could muster, Payton reached back and threw a looping strike. Sosa jogged to the mound, and the men embraced in a bear hug. For many Chicagoans, that would serve as a final image of their iconic hero.
On May 10, Payton underwent exploratory surgery at Mayo. The results were devastating. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. "The malignancy was very advanced," Gores later explained, "and progressed very rapidly."
"The lowest moment came after that diagnosis," says Quirk. "Dr. Gores told him there was a three-week protocol where [Walter] was supposed to be at Mayo Monday through Friday for different treatments. At the start of the third week Walter called and said, 'Ginny, get me out of here.' He kind of threw in the towel. It was too much."
Payton forced himself to eat, and when his appetite gave out, he was fed intravenously. His weight dropped by the day. But though his optimism crumbled, Payton didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him and tried to maintain a sense of normality. He hosted some dinners for old Bears, and while it was never stated, the purpose was obvious: to say goodbye. "I was there with about 30 other guys," says Jimbo Covert, an offensive tackle on the Super Bowl XX team. "Walter took time to go around to everybody personally and grab him and say, 'What are you doing?'—just getting the down low on how you'd been. Can you imagine how strong a person he had to have been to do that? He knew he was going to die."
Payton had been living at his house in West Dundee, but in late July, when his kidneys began to fail, he moved back to 34 Mundhank, alternating between staying in Jarrett's room and Brittney's. "He would migrate," says Jarrett. "At the time I didn't get it, but now I think it's so cool. He wanted to share himself with us."
Suhey stopped by on most days, and later there was another regular at the house. Ever since the day in 1985 when he confronted Payton about his infidelities, Mike Singletary, the Bears' All-Pro linebacker, had been persona non grata in Payton's life. Now retired as a player, Singletary—a devoutly religious man whose father had been a Pentecostal preacher—reached out to Walter through Suhey. By the beginning of fall he was often visiting the house, conversing at length with Payton about life and death, love and salvation and football. Mostly Singletary talked and Payton, lying in bed, quietly listened. "I never heard him say, 'Why me?' " Singletary said. "I know I would have been saying, 'Why me? Why me? There are other guys out there killing people—why me?' I never heard Walter say that."
I need to see you." The words were spoken by Rob Chudzinski, Miami's tight ends coach. On the other end of the phone was Jarrett Payton, the Hurricanes' freshman halfback, sitting in his dorm room. "O.K., Coach," Jarrett said. "I'll be right over." Upon entering Chudzinski's office, Jarrett heard the words he had hoped would never come. "You have to go home right now to be with your family," Chudzinski said. "Your father wants you there."
That night, Oct. 28, 1999, Jarrett boarded a flight to O'Hare. "Instead of immediately going to see him, I got one of my dad's cars and just drove around," Jarrett says. "Before I left for college, Dad liked to drive around with me for hours. Just the two of us. So that's what I did now. Driving that day, all alone, I felt like he was hanging with me. It was just the two of us, doing what we loved."
On Sunday, Oct. 31, Jarrett took another long drive before coming home to bid good night to his father. When the son walked into the bedroom, Walter—dazed, weakened, near death—lifted his head ever so slightly. Walter's brother, sister and mother were in the room. "Where have you been?" he whispered.
"I was out," replied Jarrett, "looking at some motorcycles." Without uttering a word, Walter gave his son the glare from hell.
"I'm joking," Jarrett said. "Dad, I'm joking."
Brittney was at a Halloween party hosted by a friend. A high school freshman, she was trying her best to maintain normalcy. "My closest girlfriends were there," Brittney said, "and I just broke down. All my friends were lying on the floor with me, in a big group huddle, and they were crying with me."
The following afternoon, at around 12:30, Brittney was in class when she was summoned to the principal's office. Miss Luna was there, waiting to bring her home. "She didn't say anything," Brittney says. "Just that I needed to go." Upon reaching the house, Brittney found Connie and Jarrett in her bedroom, crying and hugging.
"Do you want to see Dad one last time?" Connie asked her.
Walter Payton was all alone. His eyes and mouth were closed. His skin was cool to the touch. "I hugged him," Brittney says. "I told him I loved him. I was sad, but a part of me was relieved."
For nearly a year, a man accustomed to pain had endured unspeakable suffering. "Now," says Brittney, "he was at peace."
Dad had a sweet tooth for Laffy Taffys," Jarrett Payton says. "The banana ones. My mom used to go to Sam's Club and buy the big buckets. About two years after my father died, we moved out of our house. We were packing up everything, and one of the things we had was this big vase in the atrium that had been there for years. It was sitting on top of something, so you never got to see in it because it was high up. When we were moving, we picked up this big vase, and it almost tipped over. It made a rustling noise, and I was like, What's in here? Well, I dumped it out, and hundreds upon hundreds of Laffy Taffy wrappers came pouring out.
"It was the most beautiful thing in the world."