Walter Payton: enigmatic life and hidden heroes

The spotlight can shine so brightly on our sports heroes that we don't see the heroes standing right behind them. Enjoy the video and slide show of some of Mr. Payton's greatest moments. Photo: Associated Press

CHICAGO, October 3, 2011—Maybe it’s a Chicago thing, but Jeff Pearlman’s upcoming biography of Walter Payton, number 34, legendary running back with the Chicago Bears, is getting a lot of press.

In his extensively-researched Sweetness: The Enigmatic life of Walter Payton, to be released Oct. 4 and excerpted in the Oct. 3  Sports Illustrated magazine, Pearlman paints a picture of the Chicago hero that is less than perfect.

Chicagoans don’t want our hero to be tarnished. We want him larger than life, dodging, weaving around, and flying over the heads of the behemoths trying to flatten him. And then flashing those sparkling eyes at the camera when he crosses the goal line.

But the hero was human. And Pearlman makes that very apparent. defines hero as ”a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” There is no doubt that this describes Walter Payton the football player. But from reading the excerpt, there is also no doubt that it describes the many people who filled the life of Walter Payton the human being.

Walter Payton, Legendary Running Back

The most obvious, of course, is his wife Connie. Some would say his “long-suffering” wife after reading about Walter’s infidelities and their troubled relationship. Truth be told, Connie could have filed for divorce.

But she didn’t. Maybe she still loved him. Maybe she wanted to avoid the media storm a divorce would have brought. Maybe she didn’t want to drag her children’s father’s reputation through the mud.

But to those children and their father, she is a hero.

Sometime around 1988, Walter moved out of the family home and into an apartment in downtown Chicago. The children were about three and eight years old. In 1993, Connie watched her 12-year-old son induct her husband into the Hall of Fame knowing that Walter’s girlfriend was seated in the row behind her. Connie handled every indignity thrown her way with a grace that few of us could muster.

The children, Jarrett and Brittney, aren’t children anymore. They have grown into strong, confident, generous adults. Reading their quotes in the excerpt, it is obvious that they were raised by a mother who taught them that even though their father wasn’t perfect, he loved them. She taught them that his faults, and apparently they were many, were only part of him. They did not define him. Connie taught the children to appreciate the entire man, the same man who had walked out on her.

Courageous, brave, and noble. Connie Payton raised her children in difficult circumstances and she did an amazing job. To Walter, Jarrett, and Brittney, she is a hero.

And then there’s Matt Suhey, Number 26, fullback for the Bears. After Payton retired from the Chicago Bears following the 1987 season, he naturally drifted away from his former teammates. But then came the illness.

Payton was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis and bile duct cancer in December 1998. Matt Suhey took Payton to the Mayo Clinic for his appointments. Suhey watched one of the toughest men he knew, and these are NFL players, suffering through chemotherapy, and he became the point person for teammates longing to let Payton know they were thinking of him. 

Taking to the air, Walter Payton, aka Sweetness #34 for the Chicago Bears.  Payton is the Greatest Running Back of All Time and a favored son for Chicago and Chicago Bears fans.

Taking to the air, Walter Payton, aka Sweetness #34 for the Chicago Bears. Payton is the Greatest Running Back of All Time and a favored son for Chicago and Chicago Bears fans.


As Pearlman eloquently explains it, “He (Suhey) had blocked for his friend for eight years, and now he needed to block once again.”

Information on Suhey’s personal life is difficult to find, but an ESPN article mentions that his youngest son was born on “3-4-94 at 10:34 in the morning.” Of course, with all those 34s, Payton was the obvious choice for godfather.

As Suhey guided Payton through his illness, stopping by almost daily to check on both Walter and the family, he was also raising his own young family.

The ESPN article notes that Suhey became the Payton family rock during Walter’s illness and continued to be a source of strength to Connie and the children after Payton’s death.

No one could fill Walter’s void, but Suhey became a reassuring presence.

Distinguished courage and ability. Noble. Hero.  All words that sum up both Connie and Matt Suhey.

I, for one, will not be buying Jeff Pearlman’s book. I would be more inclined to do so if a portion of the profits were being donated to the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that works on ageing, education, and sports for disadvantaged youth, but apparently they are not.

I am, however, grateful for the Sports Illustrated excerpt. The heroes standing behind our heroes are reminders that none of us get through this world on their own. We all have our hidden heroes, and we all have the potential to be one.

Taking to the air, Walter Payton, aka Sweetness #34 for the Chicago Bears. Payton is the Greatest Running Back of All Time and a favored son for Chicago and Chicago Bears fans.

To contact Julia Goralka, see above. Her work appears in End of the Day in the Communities at the Washington Times Online.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Julia Goralka

In addition to her work at The Communities, Julia Goralka is a free-lance novel editor and has served as a volunteer board member or committee member for several local charitable organizations. Prior to writing and editing, Julia was the Division Coordinator for the interest rate derivatives marketing desk at a large financial institution based in Chicago.

Contact Julia Goralka


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