SI Vault
October 03, 2011
One of the game's true icons, a player so esteemed that the NFL's Man of the Year Award bears his name, Walter Payton retired in 1988 as pro football's alltime leading rusher. But even to those closest to him, he had always been an enigma, and in his final years the mysteries deepened
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October 03, 2011

The Hero No One Knew

One of the game's true icons, a player so esteemed that the NFL's Man of the Year Award bears his name, Walter Payton retired in 1988 as pro football's alltime leading rusher. But even to those closest to him, he had always been an enigma, and in his final years the mysteries deepened

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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.

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