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Walter & Me
Standing in the Shadow of Sweetness
By Eddie Payton, Paul Brown, Craig Wiley
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Eddie Payton, Paul Brown, and Craig Wiley
All rights reserved.
Dyin' Ain't Easy
It was late November in 1998, and Sweetness was on his way home. Momma, my friend Bubba Barham, and I were all at the Jackson, Mississippi, airport, waiting on Walter to walk off the plane. It had touched down just moments before. Daddy would have been there, too, had he not already passed on. The airport was busting at the seams with busyness, and with Christmas only a few weeks away, the atmosphere was full of good cheer. There were big ol' smiles all over the place and lots of laughter and chipper chatter as folks met up with loved ones, associates, and friends. It all paled in comparison to how I felt, though. I was more keyed up than anyone, that's for sure. It'd been about five months since I'd seen my brother, so I was really looking forward to jumping in a car with him for the ride over to Butler, Alabama. We were headed to our annual deer hunt at Pushmataha Plantation.
It seemed like forever until people started walking off that plane, so it was quite a welcome sight to see Walter among the first passengers coming through. There he was, a larger-than-life sports icon who doubled as my little bro. He had a bag on his arm and, once he saw me, a big smile on his face. But it didn't take long to see something was wrong with that normally electrified grin of his. It didn't match the merriness of the other smiles floating all around us. Actually, Walter's smile wasn't floating at all. It looked as heavy as that bag he was carrying. Maybe he'd had a bad flight. Did the other passengers hound him for autographs? Did the plane hit a rough patch and toss him around a bit? Did all that turbulence make him toss his peanuts?
I looked over at my momma, Alyne, and her face was like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds that had followed Walter off that plane. Her toothy smile was as wide-open as the great American South, and her eyes sparked up as bright as the stars out there in that clear Southern sky. She approached Walter with her arms open even wider than her smile and gave him the biggest Momma hug I'd ever seen. You know, the extra-long, uncut, extended version of what would have already been a pretty long hug. Walter didn't fight it at all; he just let it linger. About an hour later it was my turn. I looked deep into Walter's eyes before hugging him with all my might. The world knew him as Sweetness, but I knew him as something more. He was my brother, and I was his. We slapped each other on the back with that great-to-see-you-bro-but-this-is-gonna-hurt-a-little enthusiasm that only brothers can give each other.
As we pulled away, I looked at Walter's eyes again, only this time not so deep. I focused on the surface and noticed the color. Just like that, all the heaviness that had gone away came right on back. "Dawg, you feelin' okay?" I asked in a way that was more like a statement than a question. That color ... it was definitely off. "You look a little yellow. Your eyes ..."
Sweetness had grown accustomed to shaking defensive backs on the field, but when he heard my question, all he could shake was his head. "Nah, I'm good, dawg. I'm good. I just been drinkin' a lot of juice, takin' a lot of vitamins and stuff. You know, cleansin' my system and all that."
Despite his MVP-worthy effort, he sure wasn't shaking my concern with all his vitamin talk. I could just see something wasn't right about him, and Momma was starting to take notice, too. Her eyes stopped sparking like stars and started moving up and down with that patented Payton quickness that was passed down to Walter and me. She was scanning her baby boy as if examining him. "You losing weight, Walter?"
"Yeah, sure," Walter conceded. "This stuff I'm taking and drinking ... I don't know, maybe I've lost a few pounds, but I'm fine. Really, I am."
I jumped back in. "Well, when you get back to Chicago, you need to get yourself checked out."
"I will, man, I will. Don't worry, I'm good." He put his hand on my shoulder to change subjects. "Let's go huntin'!"
I'd gotten so wrapped up in hunting for answers from Walter that I'd forgotten about all the real hunting we were fixin' to do. Walter's "let's go huntin'" snapped me back to it, though, and I decided to look past what was bothering me. Yellow eyes or not, I was ready to go hunting with Sweetness.
We visited with Momma for a little while longer there in the airport before Walter, Bubba, and I left for Alabama. When Momma finally said her good-byes, she walked away without saying another word about Walter's weight or how he looked. I thought I should probably do the same for the rest of the trip, so it was mostly small talk on the drive to Pushmataha. You know, just catchin' up and whatnot. He'd already assured us he would get checked out when he got back, so that was that.
When we got to the lodge that evening, we were sitting around, just chillin' in anticipation of our morning hunt the next day. I looked closely at Walter's eyes again. Contrasted against his dark complexion, they were as yellow as a Post-it note colored in full with a neon yellow marker and placed under a neon yellow light. Okay, maybe they weren't that yellow, but you get the idea. I was still disturbed by those yellow eyes, but I told myself I wasn't going to bring it up again on that trip, so I kept my mouth shut. Then I noticed his skin. Even with skin as dark as Walter's, I could see the yellowish undertones. Not as drastic as his eyes, but it was there. And that's when my mouth just had to open.
"Hey, dawg," I said as we sat there. He looked at me with raised eyebrows that said "what's up?" I responded to his eyebrows with a two-word accusation. "You're jaundiced."
Walter's eyebrows lowered quickly to form a scowl. "I told you not to worry. It's just the juice, man."
It wasn't adding up to me, but what did I know? I'm not a doctor, and I'd heard of that sort of thing happening before with vitamins and juice. Maybe he was all right, but I wanted to hear it from a professional. "Okay, okay, just get it checked out to be sure."
"I told you I will, man. I promise, okay?" It was a short conversation, but I could tell he'd had enough of it anyway. It was time to head to bed and start dreaming about all those deer we'd be hunting the next day. All that worrying and questioning about yellow eyes and skin must have worn me out, too, 'cause I was sleeping like a rock as soon as I hit the mattress.
We all woke up bright and early the next day ready to hunt, so we got right on out there. It was a good hunt, but Walter didn't seem like his usual energetic self; he seemed fatigued and lethargic, even for a normal person, but much more so for a world-class athlete. I tried to let it go and just have a good time, but when we got back to the lodge to clean up and rest a little, I noticed Walter as he got out of the shower. I was shocked at what I saw. It looked to me like he'd lost about 25 to 30 pounds since the last time we'd gotten together. Now, again, I'm no doctor, but dropping that much weight over five months for a guy like Walter didn't make sense. The drastic weight loss plus the yellow eyes plus the yellow skin was all adding up quickly in my mind to one thing: Walter was a sick man. I had to express my concern once again and insist he really go see a doctor.
"Walter, man, what's up? You look pretty thin. I don't think those juices and vitamins are making you lose that much weight. And I don't think it's turning you yellow neither. I don't give a shit what you think is causin' it, you need to have it checked out. I'm serious."
Walter had a look of defeat on his face. It was very unusual for him. "Look, I'll go to the doctor if it'll make you feel better."
"Well, it damn sure will," I said, "and it'll make you feel better, too."
"Just promise me one thing, okay?" Walter said. "I promise I'll go get checked out right when I get back if you promise not to bring it up again for the rest of this trip." I agreed, and so we hunted hard for the next three days without a word about how Walter looked or any of that. When I took Walter back to the airport for his return flight to Chicago, though, I couldn't help myself. I walked with him to the gate and bit my tongue only until the boarding call. That's when I made him promise me one more time that he'd see a doctor when he got back to Chicago.
"I promise," he said with a wink and a grin, and just like that, he turned and was off again.
I tried to talk myself into thinking maybe it actually was just vitamins and all that, like Walter said. Maybe he was okay. After all, he was Superman, and I hadn't heard anything about any kryptonite where we're from. This was a man who had only missed one game in his entire NFL career. I had absolutely no need to worry. That's what I wanted to think, and that's what I tried to tell myself. But in the days following our hunt, I just couldn't get Walter off my mind. I kept thinking back to that week hunting with him in Alabama, and the same troubling details kept rising to the top of my head. Not only was he yellow-eyed, yellow-skinned, frail, and tired, but he also didn't eat much during the trip. He said he wasn't hungry, but that just wasn't Walter. He was always hungry, so something just had to be wrong. I felt a little better each time I remembered he was going to see a doctor. What I didn't know at the time was that a few weeks prior, he already had.
Walter was a big, big star, but he was a very private person. He kept mostly to himself, and if something was wrong, he'd often try to keep it even from his family. He didn't want anyone fussin' over him or worrying about anything. Looking back, my opinion is that Walter came to that deer hunt fully suspecting he was seriously ill. I think that's why he visited a doctor before the trip, and I think that's why he let Momma's hug linger for as long as possible. I think that heaviness around him at the airport wasn't something I imagined. I think that shadow coming off the plane behind him was something he knew was there. I think he also knew that what was ahead of him was the most difficult challenge of his life.
When I checked in on him just days after he got back, he told me he had visited a doctor already and that he had been diagnosed with "vitamin toxicity." Now, I have no reason to think he was lying to me. I think he did visit that doctor, and I think that doctor really did tell him it was vitamins. Of course, that's what Walter had blamed it all on during our hunting trip, but I felt a little better about it when he told me a doctor actually said it. I'm not sure why I didn't think to ask him why he didn't tell me before that he'd already seen a doctor. Maybe I was just too excited to hear that it was just because of the vitamins. Looking back, though, I think Walter may've talked the doctor into that diagnosis. He couldn't do it with me, but Walter had a way of talking others into saying what he wanted to hear.
As soon as Walter returned to Chicago from his trip, he picked up his regular schedule as best he could. And his regular schedule was anything but regular. It could usually be boiled down to three words and then three more: hustle, hustle, hustle and push, push, push. Before his illness, all that activity would have been because that's just how Walter Payton lived his life. After his illness, I think it was all a distraction so he could avoid dealing with reality. He was trying to act normal, but it certainly wasn't normal for Walter to go to the doctor. He couldn't keep the charade up for long due to one very inconvenient truth: Walter kept getting worse.
When he called me up to tell me things weren't going so well, despite what the doctor had said about vitamins, that's when I knew things were bad. That's when I really started to worry. And that's when we started to connect like we did back in the day, before we got pulled away from each other by life. For the first time in a long time, we started talking a lot. Every three days, in fact. And our days of talking weren't the only things coming in threes. He started describing three recurring symptoms: severe stomach aches, diarrhea, and exhaustion. Those things were hitting him harder than any linebacker ever did. Sweetness was hurting, and I could tell he was reaching out to me, his older brother, to push him to do something about it. He couldn't force himself to take the next step, so he was asking me to. And that's exactly what I did. I told him to forget all this vitamin stuff he heard from that doctor and finally get some real help. He stopped telling me nothing was wrong and agreed to do what I said.
In early December, Walter called Jim Sheridan, a business partner and one of his closest friends. I didn't know much about the guy, but I knew he had a lot to do with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. That's to say, I knew he was legit and would be able to help my little bro. He was a very busy guy, but he got Walter worked in within a few weeks, which was fantastic. Still, I was worried. The fact that Walter listened to me and was going in there to get checked out had me thinking something very bad could be going down. I didn't feel optimistic about it at all. I feared the worst. I expected our world to come crashing down. Even so, I was stunned by the results. Superman had stumbled upon some kryptonite.
Walter was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare and chronic disease that attacks the bile ducts of the liver. In plain English, he was gravely ill, and the diagnosis hit me like a speeding bullet. I was dazed, trying to make sense of it all, and at the same time I was trying to keep up with my duties as golf coach at Jackson State. It was a tough, tough time and almost impossible to stay focused on my job. Primary sclerosing cholangitis didn't sound good, and not just because I couldn't pronounce it. Walter was dying. He wasn't just injured, he wasn't just hit a little too hard in the head, and he wasn't just "doubtful" for his next NFL game. My little brother was actually dying. He was doubtful to live.
Then I got a little bit of hope from Walter. He explained that the doctors said a liver transplant could save his life. I pumped my fist and instantly thought Walter was gonna make it. He'd be certain to get a transplant. I mean, he was a big football hero, so surely they'd put him high on the list, right? Well, in all my hope, I guess I forgot for a second that Walter is Walter. He told the doctors that just because he carried a football better than most people in the world didn't mean he deserved to get ahead of anyone else on the list. The Mickey Mantle liver transplant fiasco was still fresh on Walter's mind, I think. Some thought Mantle had jumped ahead of others since he got his donor liver in just one day, and Walter didn't want to be remembered as pushing folks aside to get his. He didn't think he was better than anyone else, and he didn't want to be treated that way. That was hard for his family to hear.
Us kids were always tops in Momma's eyes, though, and Walter was about to get the Momma treatment. She decided to make Chicago her temporary — but indefinite — new home. She just had to see Walter through this and went to all the doctor appointments with him. I wanted to be there, too, but I knew he was in good hands with Momma by his side. It was at that point that I started getting most of my information about Walter's rapidly advancing condition straight from Momma. I knew Walter would try to give me the optimistic view with a wink and a grin like he often did, but Momma wouldn't. No, sir. She'd just lay it on me, unfiltered and with no candy coating. I was counting on her for that, so I called her right after they met with the doctor for the final results of all his tests. Good, bad, or whatever, I wanted to know the truth.
"Momma, what did y'all find out?" I asked, hoping for any sort of good news.
No good news came.
"They told him it was really bad, Eddie. The doctor said his only chance is to have a liver transplant."
"Yeah, that's what Walter told me before," I said. "He acted like it was no big deal, but it sounds radical to me. What do you think?"
"That's what I think, too," Momma continued. "And to have this surgery ... you know ... it could work, I guess, but they say sometimes they take and sometimes they don't, so who knows? Walter asked me what I'd do if I was him.'"
"What did you say?"
"I told him I wouldn't have it."
I was wishing Momma would have told him to do whatever it takes, but like I said, with Momma you always get the truth. "What did Walter say to that?" I asked.
"Not much. He just said he didn't want to be put ahead of anybody, that if he was going to do it, he'd wait his turn."
Excerpted from Walter & Me by Eddie Payton, Paul Brown, Craig Wiley. Copyright © 2012 Eddie Payton, Paul Brown, and Craig Wiley. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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