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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."
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."