The Greatest Bear of Them All
The young man from Columbia, Mississippi, would have been shocked, maybe even a little embarrassed, by all the attention. He certainly would have been humbled. In the hours after Walter Payton passed away on November 1, 1999, something special happened to the world of sports. For one shining moment, people forgot the problems that plague sports today—disrespectful athletes, teams holding cities hostage, out-of-control fans—and focused instead on what is good about sports, all of which was embodied by that young man from Columbia.
Few things can bring a city as vibrant as Chicago to a standstill. Fewer still are the things that can bring together a group of loosely organized people, a group like those involved in professional football. So forgive Connie Payton if she was, as she said, absolutely awestruck by the reaction that followed her husband's death. Sports fans will not soon forget where they were when they heard that the Greatest Bear of Them All was gone.
A zealously private man, Walter Payton had left pro football nearly thirteen years earlier and had only rarely attended games and participated in NFL-related events. Walter had grown to believe there wasn't much more he could do for the game he once played. There weren't many players he admired and even fewer whom he enjoyed watching. The game, he worried, was in trouble because so many players didn't understand the value of team, didn't understand what it was like to have played in "his time" even though it was really not so long ago. Walter had worried there was nothing left he could give to the game.
Nothing, Connie Payton found out, could be further from the truth.
During the first few days of November 1999, coaches, players, fans, and broadcasters from across the country took time out to talk about Walter Payton and what he had meant to them. What he meant was not 3,838 carries, 16,728 yards, 110 touchdowns. What he meant was more than that. Those eulogizing him chose instead to recall a story about a time they saw him sign an autograph for a fan in a hospital, spend pregame time talking to those in the stands or cuddling a child handed down to him from the crowd.
The grief and affection that flowed from all corners of America served as a billboard-size lesson of what the game once was and should still be. Yes, he held great records. Yes, his runs were often spectacular—even the runs that gained only a handful of yards. Yes, he was the most talented player of what many considered the most talented professional football team in the modern era. He showed that you could be a superstar and still be someone whom people could touch. He was down-to-earth, funny, always looking for a rear end to pinch. He loved to laugh, showing off that perfect smile, yet he wasn't afraid to cry. He was a man's man and every mother's dream. Payton had not just been a great football player, he had been a role model in an age when role models are in short supply.
Most would agree that the death of almost any other player would not have hit lovers of football quite the way Walter Payton's untimely passing did. The league asked teams to fly flags at half-mast. Moments of silence were offered at stadiums from Buffalo to San Diego. Players remembered him by scribbling his name or number on their shoes. And while honoring him, those in pro football came together in a way that touched even the most hardened. Honoring his passing brought together the men who had played with and against him, the coaches who had tried to stop him, younger players who knew him only through video highlights, and fans, many of whom had never even seen him play. In that time of mourning, pro football rallied and became a community again.
And maybe that was Walter's greatest gift—not his athletic talent but his unmatched ability to touch all those who came in contact with him.
Connie Payton: Walter would have been shocked at the response from people all around the world upon his passing. I was quite shocked. When we were making the funeral arrangements, Ginny and Matt kept talking about security to help with crowd control. They mentioned checkpoints at the door of the church and finding a church large enough to hold the number of people that would be in attendance. I looked at them with this puzzled expression on my face and said, "What are you two talking about?" Their response to me was "Don't you realize how many people are going to want to attend Walter's funeral and the memorial service?" It was more than I ever imagined and knowing Walter the way that I do, I'm sure that he would have been just as surprised. I wondered what it was about him that made people respond the way they did. As quiet as he could be there must have been something magical about the way he reacted around others. Then I realized that it was nothing magical but his genuine spirit and his openness that set him apart from all the other athletes. It didn't matter who the person was that wanted his time. He would stop and talk, even when he didn't want to at times. About a week or so after he passed, my mother and I were at the car wash and we were approached by several people telling their personal Walter stories. There were also stories of encounters with Walter that had been told to them by friends or family members. The stories were as simple as: He held my baby, he touched my son's head, asked him how he was doing in school, made him give Mom or Dad a kiss, then said to them, That's what you are supposed to do. He did have a special way with kids and he loved babies. The stories could go on and on, but it's evident as to why people felt that they knew him personally.
Eddie Payton (Walter's brother): Walter's last days were pretty much the greatest days of my life, being able to be there with him at the end. It wasn't a sad time, but it was an emotional time. You had a mother, a brother, and a wife, a son and a daughter, taking care of him. He knew what was happening, was well aware of it, accepted it. He knew what his fate was, never asked me why, never bitter, enjoyed every day that he was with us. He talked and laughed and joked with people who came in to visit as long as he could. As long as his stamina would allow, and then he'd rest. Then he'd wake up and be ready to talk again. It was one of the most beautiful things that I'd ever witnessed and one of the greatest shows of courage that, in my short lifetime, I've ever witnessed. Because for a man to go with that much pride and that much dignity just says volumes about who he was. He crammed about as much as he could in forty-five years of life. I mean, he helped, touched, inspired, worked for the betterment of so many people. And then he was able to accomplish some of his lifetime goals. Got two great kids who are going to be great Americans. One's gonna be a hell of a football player. And he's instilled in them some of the things that our parents instilled in us. And when you look at your kids and see them doing well, or better than you did, you say, I've done something right. Walter said that before he finally died.
Connie Payton: Matt was spending a great deal of time at the house with Walter. On Saturday, nine days before Walter died, Matt came over to take him out for a ride, which he did often. It was a good morning for Walter. He shaved, got dressed, and the two of them went out for a little while. Several weeks before, we had started him on a liquid nutrition supplement, which was working out extremely well. He was feeling a lot stronger, doing more things around the house. We would take longer walks in the neighborhood. We all felt that he was getting better with each day. We also had nurses stopping in to do the treatments that we couldn't do at home ourselves. One of the things that we had to do often was to take his temperature. Walter had a PICC line in his right shoulder, which was used to draw blood and feed him his nutrition. It was also inserted there to make it easier for everyone involved because Walter had a fear of needles and wouldn't let anyone near him to draw blood from his veins, which had started to collapse. On that Saturday evening, the nurse found that he was running a slight temperature. She said that we should watch it and that she would take it again when she came in on Sunday morning. She came that morning and found that he was still running a fever. We were told to call the doctor, which we did. The doctor asked us to come to the hospital just to make sure that an infection hadn't set in.
We took Walter to the Midwest Treatment Center. My family and I thought that maybe it was time to change the PICC line because it was only a temporary line anyway. We didn't worry because he seemed to be in good spirits. As a matter of fact, on our way to the hospital we had a great conversation with one of his former teammates, Thomas Sanders, and his family, who were waiting outside our home. We talked for a while, then he and Thomas hugged and kissed before we went on our way. The doctors were waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital around two-thirty p.m. Walter got out of the car on his own. A wheelchair was waiting to take him upstairs.
When we went to the hospital, we had no reason to think anything but that possibly Walter had a minor infection, but little did we know that it was a bigger problem. His body was beginning to shut down. The fluid that he started to retain was because his kidneys were failing. I couldn't believe what I was seeing or hearing. In less than three and a half hours, my husband could no longer get himself up, he could hardly speak. He was aware that something more serious was happening to him. The doctors explained that they wanted to put him on dialysis. I then had to tell him what they wanted to do; his eyes were open very wide. I told him that we should consider it, do whatever we had to do to live. He said to do whatever I thought was right.
By Sunday night, his mother and I knew that his condition was getting worse. The doctor had started the dialysis to relieve pressure. The doctors knew medically there was not much more that they could do for Walter. We all wanted him to be comfortable. He was sleeping a great deal and we made the decision not to say anything to him about the grim outlook. Such dramatic changes in such a short period of time. Again I thanked the good Lord for our reaching the hospital before any of this happened.
On Monday morning, the doctors said to have Jarrett come home from Miami. I made the dreaded call to the University of Miami, spoke to the athletic director and coaches. I wanted them to know all the details so that they could help prepare our son emotionally. Jarrett was not told all the details, but he knew that it was important for him to get home. We made the travel arrangements, which got him home late Monday night. Once he arrived home, he, Brittney, and I had a talk about the turn of events. On Tuesday morning, we all went to the hospital to see Walter. It was very emotional for all of us. Brittney took it the hardest. The kids talked to him, held his hand, and kissed him. He recognized them, he even said a few words to Jarrett. I really think he knew that Brittney was upset, so he held on to her hand tightly. He was very tired, but was trying hard to stay with us. We told him to rest, that we would all be there for him.
On Wednesday, after talking to his doctors and being told that there was nothing more to do to better his condition, I decided to bring him home, where I knew he would want to be. Walter loved our home; after all it was our dream house. The hospital made all the arrangements to have hospice available and to get all the necessary hospital equipment set up at the house so that we could make him as comfortable as possible. I wanted everything to be perfect, nothing broken, nothing missing! Once things were in order, the ambulance arrived for the trip home. It seemed like a long trip home, so different than the trip to the hospital. The one thing that was the same for me is that I had the same faith to keep believing and trusting in God. After all, faith is believing in the things unseen, and we walk by faith, not by sight.
Walter was amazing. He fought to live. Our friends and I prayed long and hard. We were not giving up hope; as a matter of fact his condition seemed as if it was getting better. He began to respond to us more and his kidneys were functioning better also. He didn't seem as swollen and his eyes were not as jaundiced. We were very thankful for what was happening. We were so sure that he was getting better that I had planned to send Jarrett back to Miami on Tuesday, November 2.
We brought Walter home because the doctors said that there was nothing more that they could do for him. I knew this, yet I was not prepared for him to die. I wanted so badly for him to get better. He too wanted to beat this dreaded disease. There were so many things to do, for instance watching Jarrett begin his football career at UM, watching Brittney grow into a beautiful young lady with so much to offer the world that lies before her.
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