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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."