Two days following my thirteenth birthday, Walter Payton held a press conference to announce he was fighting a violently rare autoimmune disorder named primary sclerosing cholangitis. The press conference was an emotional one, as expected as the country watched one of its most celebrated athletes and shining examples of fitness and health place his life – and what little time remained – in God’s hands.
Hearing “Sweetness” fight back tears while publicly coming to grips with his own mortality was a poignant and formative moment in my childhood. “Message to my friends. To the people who really care about me,” he said. “To the people who really care about me, just continue to pray for me. To those who are going to say what they want to say, may God be with you also.”
Perhaps I remember shedding a tear because watching superheroes die isn’t how the script is supposed to pan out. Or maybe I saw a lot of my uncle who had recently passed a month earlier. Walter Payton meant the world to a lot of people outside of his family, most notably Bears fans, the city of Chicago and Columbia, Mississippi. He still does, too, regardless of the shade (however valid) thrown on his name postmortem.
Beyond The Glory’s documentary on the life and times of Walter is a program worth revisiting for those, like myself, who can only form memories on one of the NFL’s most iconic names through the eyes of others.
It’s a sad story, yet an elegant one as well. Relax and take notes.