The Longest Yard
The National Football League's all-time leading rusher clearly struck a nerve when he announced at a hastily called news conference in February that he was suffering from a rare liver disease and needed a transplant. Maybe it was because the once-mighty athlete—whom former coach Mike Ditka described as "the greatest football player I've ever seen"—had lost 40 pounds in the preceding several months and looked like a drawn, shrunken version of the man fans remembered. Or perhaps it was the sight of 18-year-old Jarrett Payton, now a top college football prospect, hugging his father and breaking down in tears. "When the nation looks at Walter Payton, they remember those NFL highlight reels where he looks like Superman," says Chicago sportscaster Mike Adamle, who played with Payton in the '70s. "And then we find out that Superman, too, is vulnerable. I think it made us fall in love with him even more."
The first signs of trouble nine months ago surprised Payton, who has worked out religiously since his 1988 retirement. "Every time I would eat something—four, five hours later, the next day, I'd burp and still taste it, so something was wrong," he recalls. "That's not like me. Everything works perfect." He stops to correct himself. "Everything was working perfect."
Over the next three months, Payton's indigestion continued, and he started losing weight. In October he went traveling with his Indy car racing team—part of a $30 million business empire that also includes a heavy-duty construction equipment company and a brewery. By the time he went to see his physician, Dr. Joseph Lagattuta, he was jaundiced and having trouble sleeping. "We had all the tests and everything else. They kept coming up negative," Payton says. "Then we went up to the Mayo Clinic."
The good news was that by January the Mayo physicians were finally able to pinpoint the cause of Payton's digestive problems: weight loss and fatigue. The bad news was their diagnosis—primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a progressive disorder in which the accumulation of bile due to the narrowing of inflamed and scarred bile ducts leads inexorably to cirrhosis and liver failure. (Although the cause of PSC is unknown, it is not related to alcohol consumption, viral hepatitis or the use of anabolic steroids.) The prognosis was that, although the periodic insertion of "stents"—tubelike devices to expand the bile ducts—would help, Payton would probably need a liver transplant by the end of the year.
"I said, 'Whoa! Well, now I know what I got, let's fix it,' " Payton recalls. "I figured, 'Accept it, because there's nothing else you can do.' " According to Payton, accepting his illness was easier than telling his children—daughter Brittney, then 13, and Jarrett. "It was real hard on Brittney," says Payton's wife, Connie, 44, a Mary Kay cosmetics representative. "She was out of school for a couple of days, just kind of emotionally coming to grips with everybody else knowing." Big brother Jarrett seemed initially to take the news in stride, but that was deceptive.
"I was kind of in denial at first. I was thinking it was going to be a week, two weeks, and he was going to bounce back and be fine," Jarrett says. "After I saw him starting to lose the weight, it hit me kind of hard. People were always asking me, 'What's going on? Why's your dad losing weight?' He didn't want people to know, and I didn't want other people to know."
And that's how it would have remained if Payton—behind whose disarming charm lies an intensely private person—had had his way. "I would have said nothing," says Pay-ton. "That's the way I am." But his hand was forced when his gaunt appearance at Jarrett's January press conference announcing that he would be attending the University of Miami prompted rampant media speculation about his condition.
Fortunately, going public has yielded unexpected dividends. For starters, the outpouring of support has boosted the spirits of Payton and his family as he awaits his transplant. (Because Payton's PSC was much more aggressive than initially believed, next month he is scheduled to receive a beeper with which he can be instantly summoned to the Mayo Clinic once a donor liver becomes available. Following a successful liver transplant, a recipient has an 80 percent chance of being alive after three years.) "The support even from those people out there that we knew nothing about has just been incredible," observes wife Connie. "And I think it's really helped him too. Really made him stronger."
His announcement has also given Payton an opportunity to help others by promoting organ donation. Within days of Payton's news conference tens of thousands of people nationally had registered to become donors. In the following week, Mike Ditka held a press conference in New Orleans to make his own appeal. Says Payton's former teammate Mike Singletary: "As I look at Walter and the situation, I think this can be one of his finest hours."
But much of the time passes slowly for Payton, particularly during the middle of the night when, he says, "everybody else is asleep and I'm walking around the house" because of PSC-related insomnia. While the rest of the family slumbers in their sprawling, six-bedroom home in suburban South Barrington, Ill., Payton has been known to pass the hours watching westerns, particularly those starring John Wayne. ("The only way you can make a bad western is where you have a cowboy singing," he observes. "I like to see some action. Blow up something. Turn over wagons.")
During the many nights when he has trouble dozing off, and in the time he finds on his hands because of doctors' orders to curtail his activities, Payton has also been trying to read some of his mail. A number of cards are from children with liver disorders of their own, like the 9-year-old boy with cirrhosis who wrote, "Mommy said, 'God will take care of you. Just like he's going to take care of me.' Don't be scared please." Says Payton: "You start, and then after about two or three letters I kind of break down."
Since his most recent stent procedure in February, Payton has regained some of his lost weight—though his favorite food, bananas, remains proscribed because of digestion problems—and his jaundice is no longer so evident. "He's actually growing anxious to get it over with and move on," says Dr. Lagattuta. "There's anticipation. He likes challenges." Says Jarrett Payton: "You've got to be scared. But I know he's a fighter, and I know he's strong. I know he's going to come out of it."
Mary Green in South Barrington