When Payton's luck finally ran out and his health inexorably failed, his death had a tremendous impact both on his family and on the community as a whole. But there was an unexpectedly happy ending to this story. Through the efforts of his wife, Connie, and his children Jared and Brittany, Payton's legacy continues to be a vital force in Chicago.
"One of the things that I am the proudest of is the establishment of the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation," Connie Payton said recently during a speech at the Chicago Bears Fan Convention. "The Foundation was established shortly after Walter's death. At the time, I was looking for some way to respond positively to the community that was so supportive of him during his illness. I really didn't want to dwell on negatives, but I did want for Walter to be remembered. Walter loved kids. Establishing an organization that would help abused and neglected children seemed to be a natural fit."
Connie Payton's goal was to give children who seemed to have no hope a chance to regain a positive self-image.
"There is nothing more important to a child than feeling that he or she is loved and respected," Payton said. "That's what the Foundation is working on right now. We are giving them hope for a better tomorrow."
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation raises money for computers, administers mentoring programs, hosts graduation lunches for participants, and works with the Department of Children and Family Services to bring positive influences into the lives of children in need.
"Walter would have been very pleased with all of this," Payton said. "We are taking his spirit of joyfulness and his energy and using it for something very positive."
The Payton's are also active in the Walter Payton Cancer Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer, and helped establish Youth for Life, a school based organ donor program first suggested by Payton's daughter Brittany.
"It was so hard on our children, Jared and Brittany, when Walter first died," Connie Payton said. "I think that by being active in the community in this way it helps them to work through some of their grief by doing good for others."
What's ahead for the Payton family?
"Only good things, I hope," said Payton. "Jared is a senior at the University of Miami right now. I'm not sure if he'll continue in football. I know for a fact that he's still mad that Miami didn't win the national championship. He was one of the first players on the field when they thought that Miami had beaten Ohio State. If he goes into the NFL, that's wonderful. If not, there are many talents that he can use for a successful career somewhere in the world of business. Brittany is still in high school, so she'll have college ahead of her before she goes out into the world."
And for Payton herself?
"I'm probably busier than I have ever been. It's been a fascinating experience and a revelation to me that out of such sadness would come some very positive things. I plan to stay active in the community and in our foundations. If we can help in the fight against cancer, if we can get someone to be an organ donor, or if we can make a child's future brighter, then it's all-worthwhile. I think that if Walter were still with us, he'd be working on these very things."
For further information about the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, call 847-605-0034 or go to www.payton34.com