"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."