Commentary

Sweet memories

Ditka, Suhey, family honor 10th anniversary of Payton's death

Originally Published: October 30, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

His children are adults now: Jarrett, a married man; Brittney, a television reporter.

[+] EnlargeWalter Payton
US PresswireHe's been gone 10 years, but Walter Payton memories remain fresh in the minds and hearts of Bears fans.

If it doesn't seem like 10 years to us that former Bears great Walter Payton has been gone, it does to a family that has experienced the birthdays and graduations and weddings without him.

Jarrett chose his wedding date deliberately to honor his father -- March 4. 3-4.

"I think about him every single day, but it's the big moments I always wish he was around for," Jarrett said. "Getting married was the biggest. That's why I made it that day, 3-4, so we could feel his spirit around us."

They don't have to try hard for that. Every day, said Jarrett, something happens to remind him. "Either the clock hits 2:34 just when I look at it or the GPS says 34 miles until the destination. The week of the wedding, it was rainy, then the day of the wedding it was suddenly sunny and warm. It's like he always makes himself present. And we have all had that experience."

In some ways, all of us who loved Walter Payton can relate.

Will we ever see the No. 34 without thinking of him? Ever witness a miraculous run, a goal line leap or the occasional stiff arm and not smile at the knowledge that Payton did it so much better?

Was there any doubt that day in Green Bay, in the first Bears game following Payton's passing, that Walter himself had a hand in Bryan Robinson's block of a Ryan Longwell field goal as time expired to secure Chicago's victory and snap the Packers' 10-game winning streak?

"The other day I was in the restaurant," Mike Ditka said, "and I couldn't tell you how many people, maybe 20, maybe more, who were wearing Walter Payton jerseys. That's good that people still wear them. I would rather see a Walter jersey than some of these other clowns."

Ditka has no doubt that if Payton were playing today, he would be the same star he was in the 1970s and '80s, and who would argue?

"It would be silly," Payton's former coach said. "He was a warrior, the best-conditioned, strongest guy pound-for-pound, a great runner, great blocker, receiver, great all-around. And the biggest thing he had was his great will and heart, and that's what drove him."

[+] EnlargeMatt Suhey
Berstein Associates/Getty ImagesMatt Suhey remembers being amazed at how well Walter Payton could play through pain.

That he left his family and friends and a city that loved him at age 45 was one of the crueler ironies for a man who missed just one game in 13 years, and that one against his will in his rookie season.

"You understand passion when you consider that," said backfield mate and closest friend Matt Suhey. "People have no idea how many bumps and injuries he played with. His ribs were the biggest thing, when he played in Dallas in the early '80s. It would've been awfully tough for me to play at all. I definitely would've gotten shot up, but he didn't like that. He just played through it and even more unbelievably, he was his normal, phenomenal self, beyond what anybody else could do. His ability to play with pain and at the same level was amazing."

But fighting through injury and fighting through terminal liver disease are obviously two different things, and Payton, Suhey said, was well aware of his limitations.

"He knew he was sick, he knew it was not good," Suhey said. "His doctors were unfortunately very accurate in telling Walter early on what he had and if this happened, this would happen. There was no way to avoid it. His ability to take a lot of discomfort was truly amazing, but it was just a horrible, nasty disease. As well as he could take discomfort, ultimately it was just a horrible way to go, if there's any good way. But his attitude and ability to remain positive was phenomenal."

Suhey did not speak publicly for a long time after Payton's death, partly grief-stricken and partly not knowing what he should say.

"Walter was so private about his illness, and I wanted to keep it that way, and he didn't give me any direction," Suhey said. "He wanted to fight this thing on his own terms, but it was so difficult."

Suhey has remained involved with the Payton family. He looks at Jarrett and Brittney and sees clearly the passage of time.

"When I think about how old Brittney and Jarrett were [13 and 18 at the time of their father's death] and I see them now, it really lets me know that the 10 years have flown by," Suhey said. "He would be extremely proud of the way both turned out. He would be smiling down on them."

Brittney is a reporter for the Big Ten Network while Jarrett pursues his love of music and dream of owning his own recording label. Both work with the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation, which is "dedicated to the emotional healing of neglected, abused and underprivileged children." And though their father did not live long enough to benefit from it, both are involved in continuing to bring awareness to organ donation.

Growing up, Jarrett shared his father's love of football and music. Still does, though his football career ended after a spin through the NFL, Europe and Canada. He said he understood when Michael Jordan told his children he did not envy them in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

"I definitely knew what Mike was talking about even though it's hard for anybody else out there to understand," he said. "Only three of us sons [of Jordan and Payton] who played the same sport as our fathers know what he was talking about. But my dad always said 'Be yourself,' and I grew up with that mentality. You can't shy away from your last name and your own identity, but striving to be myself made it easier."

While the rest of us saw Payton as a hero, Jarrett did as well.

"My dad was the biggest jokester," he recalled, "but he was also really strict, and that's the coolest thing about it, that now I'm starting to see how great it was to have somebody who was your best friend but also a disciplinarian, and that's how he lived.

"I believe he knew he was not going to be around for a long time, so he had to teach me certain things about how to function and how to grow up to be a man. He didn't do a lot of talking, but I learned more by watching anyway."

His dad would be proud, he said, of how closely he paid attention.

"My whole football career, not giving up, continuing to work hard, trying to find my way. The biggest thing I learned is that nothing comes easy, that you have to work hard to accomplish everything because that way you cherish and appreciate it that much more."

Still, they struggle with it all. The other day at his restaurant, Ditka looked at a photo of himself with Payton, who was sick at the time.

"You could see the deterioration, and it was incredible," Ditka said. "We're talking about one of the strongest physical people I've ever been around -- the guy was like a piece of steel -- and you could see what disease could do to his body. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, how do you explain it, to take somebody with so much to give, who was such a role model and take him away? It doesn't make sense."

Suhey thinks of their post-retirement days when he and his buddy were busy, working. And he thinks about how it could have been these past 10 years.

[+] EnlargePayton fans
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesThe Payton family wants fans to wear No. 34 jerseys Sunday, but they really didn't have to ask.

"We were so busy in those days working," he said, "but we would have had a lot of fun, whether we were playing golf, Walter liked to go to Vegas a little bit, all the good times we would have had with all the guys, our teammates."

His voice trailed off. On Sunday, Suhey and Dennis Gentry will escort the Payton family, including Walter's mother, Alyne, onto the field at halftime of the Bears-Cleveland Browns game for a tribute to their husband, son and father, and to the greatest running back many of us will ever know.

They are encouraging fans to wear their No. 34 Walter Payton jerseys.

But they probably didn't need to ask.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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