Payton battles rare liver disease

Bears Hall of Famer, 44, needs transplant within two years to survive

February 03, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Choking back tears at an emotional news conference, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton announced yesterday that he is suffering from a rare disease and will need a liver transplant to survive.

Payton, 44, has a disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks its own tissues and scars the bile ducts. It affects only three of 100,000 people.

The most obvious symptom is that Payton has lost a lot of weight. His gaunt appearance was a shocking contrast to the well-sculptured look he had when he became the NFL's all-time leading rusher for the Chicago Bears.

"Right now I feel pretty good," he said at the news conference in Rosemont, Ill. "It's amazing. I can eat anything I want as much as I want and I can't gain any weight."

The most poignant moment came when he said, "Message to my friends. To the people who really care about me "

Payton then spent 15 seconds regaining his composure as he rested his head on his hand-held microphone and his 17-year-old son, Jarrett, consoled him.

He then continued: "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."

When he was asked if he was scared, he said: "Am I scared? Hell, yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be scared? But it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands."

But Payton also said: "I can't lay around and mope around and hope everything is going to be OK. I'm still moving and grooving."

He also told reporters: "To some of you, I don't look healthy. I still am. Most of you guys I can still take, so I don't worry about it."

Payton decided to go public with the details of his illness because of the rumors about his health that started last week when he appeared at a news conference to announce his son will play at the University of Miami.

The cause of the disease is unknown but his physician, Dr. Joseph Lagattuta, said it isn't related to alcohol, steroids, hepatitis or immune deficiency. Payton said he doesn't drink or smoke.

His doctor said patients in Payton's condition survive an average of two years unless they get a transplant.

Lagattuta said 88 percent of people who receive a liver transplant are alive after a year, and the long-term survival rate is "very promising."

Lagattuta said the disease is difficult to diagnose and can go undetected for years. To aid Payton's digestion, a plastic tube was surgically inserted between the vessel that carries bile from the liver to the intestines.

Doctors said Payton's status as a celebrity wouldn't mean he'd get preferential treatment in his bid for a new liver. But if he chooses treatment at the Mayo Clinic where he's being evaluated, he would benefit from its leadership in research and treatment of the disease and from its location in Minnesota. It has a shorter waiting list than Chicago-area transplant centers.

Payton never had any serious illness and injury problems during his 13 years with the Bears and only missed one game. That was in his rookie year in 1975 when the Bears played in Pittsburgh. An assistant coach suggested he skip the game and avoid aggravating an injury by taking on the Steel Curtain in a game the Steelers won, 34-3.

After the game, a Chicago reporter told Payton: "Jim Brown never did that."

"Did what?" he asked.

"Missed a game," the reporter replied.

Payton never missed another one. In Payton's last game in Baltimore in 1983, he had an ankle injury, but tried to go. He came out after gaining 4 yards in three carries.

Payton played 13 years, made nine Pro Bowls and set NFL records by carrying 3,838 times for 16,726 yards. He had a record 10 1,000-yard seasons and set the single-game record for 275 yards in a game against Minnesota in 1977.

When he set the career mark, he was gracious enough to mention the "athletes who didn't get an opportunity to [break records] like the Overstreets, Delaneys and the Brian Piccolos."

David Overstreet, who played for the Miami Dolphins, was killed in a car accident in 1984. Joe Delaney of the Kansas City Chiefs drowned in 1983. Piccolo, whose close friendship with fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers was chronicled in the book and TV movie "Brian's Song," died of cancer in 1970.

After retiring from football, Payton has been involved in several business ventures, including a failed attempt to get an expansion team for St. Louis. He is the minority owner of a power equipment firm and an Indy-CART auto racing team. He's also the founding director of a bank.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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