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Near the end of the show, Jiggetts asked if there was anything Payton wanted to tell his fans. Payton's hands began to shake. He put his head on his son's shoulder and began to cry. "To the people that really care about me, just continue to pray," he said. "And for those who are going to say what they want to say, may God be with you also."
On April 12, 1999, former Bears fullback Matt Suhey picked up his old teammate in his Mercedes 430 and drove him to Wrigley Field. It was the day of the Cubs' 97th home opener, and Walter Payton was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. On the way to the park, Payton turned to Suhey. "Maybe I'll do this again next year," he said, "when I nip this thing." There was nothing for Suhey to say. When the prognosis was still in doubt, he could laugh as Payton cracked lines like, "This is gonna be another Brian's Song—only here the brother dies in the end." By this point, though, Suhey was well aware that, for all the hope and prayer and optimism, his friend was dying. "The cancer was severe," Suhey says. "His odds were not good."
Five months earlier, when he first learned of Payton's illness, Suhey dedicated himself to being by his side as much as possible. Though the two had been friends through the years, they were not extremely close. They spoke every so often, partnered in some business deals, traded holiday cards. When Payton became ill, however, something in Suhey changed. He had blocked for his friend for eight years, and now he needed to block once again. "Matt was loyal to Walter," said Mike Lanigan, their friend and business partner. "Fiercely loyal." Suhey accompanied Payton to the Mayo Clinic, where Payton was undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments. He still cringes at the memory of Payton's suffering. "For a guy who could take so much pain on the football field, this was a real test," Suhey says. "I've never seen anything like it. Just nightmarish." Suhey consulted with the physicians, served as a buffer between former teammates anxious to visit and a star determined to maintain some semblance of privacy. "Matt," says Quirk, "was right there when Walter needed him most."
At Wrigley, Payton was met by a handful of club officials. They presented him with a pin-striped Cubs jersey and a light-blue cap. When Payton was introduced by the public-address announcer, he strode to the mound, removed his jacket to reveal the jersey, crossed himself and spun his hat backward. The fans stood and cheered. The sun was bright, the temperature 49°. A gentle breeze blew across the field. Star rightfielder Sammy Sosa crouched behind home plate, pounded his mitt and waited for the pitch. With all the energy he could muster, Payton reached back and threw a looping strike. Sosa jogged to the mound, and the men embraced in a bear hug. For many Chicagoans, that would serve as a final image of their iconic hero.
On May 10, Payton underwent exploratory surgery at Mayo. The results were devastating. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. "The malignancy was very advanced," Gores later explained, "and progressed very rapidly."
"The lowest moment came after that diagnosis," says Quirk. "Dr. Gores told him there was a three-week protocol where [Walter] was supposed to be at Mayo Monday through Friday for different treatments. At the start of the third week Walter called and said, 'Ginny, get me out of here.' He kind of threw in the towel. It was too much."
Payton forced himself to eat, and when his appetite gave out, he was fed intravenously. His weight dropped by the day. But though his optimism crumbled, Payton didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him and tried to maintain a sense of normality. He hosted some dinners for old Bears, and while it was never stated, the purpose was obvious: to say goodbye. "I was there with about 30 other guys," says Jimbo Covert, an offensive tackle on the Super Bowl XX team. "Walter took time to go around to everybody personally and grab him and say, 'What are you doing?'—just getting the down low on how you'd been. Can you imagine how strong a person he had to have been to do that? He knew he was going to die."
Payton had been living at his house in West Dundee, but in late July, when his kidneys began to fail, he moved back to 34 Mundhank, alternating between staying in Jarrett's room and Brittney's. "He would migrate," says Jarrett. "At the time I didn't get it, but now I think it's so cool. He wanted to share himself with us."
Suhey stopped by on most days, and later there was another regular at the house. Ever since the day in 1985 when he confronted Payton about his infidelities, Mike Singletary, the Bears' All-Pro linebacker, had been persona non grata in Payton's life. Now retired as a player, Singletary—a devoutly religious man whose father had been a Pentecostal preacher—reached out to Walter through Suhey. By the beginning of fall he was often visiting the house, conversing at length with Payton about life and death, love and salvation and football. Mostly Singletary talked and Payton, lying in bed, quietly listened. "I never heard him say, 'Why me?' " Singletary said. "I know I would have been saying, 'Why me? Why me? There are other guys out there killing people—why me?' I never heard Walter say that."
I need to see you." The words were spoken by Rob Chudzinski, Miami's tight ends coach. On the other end of the phone was Jarrett Payton, the Hurricanes' freshman halfback, sitting in his dorm room. "O.K., Coach," Jarrett said. "I'll be right over." Upon entering Chudzinski's office, Jarrett heard the words he had hoped would never come. "You have to go home right now to be with your family," Chudzinski said. "Your father wants you there."