Remembering a Legend: The Life of Walter Payton
On November 1st, 1999, legendary Bears running back Walter Payton passed away after a short illness. To many, he was the epitome of greatness. To some he represented the blue collar, hardworking city of Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s. To many, he was one of the greatest players in Chicago Bears as well as NFL history. The anniversary of this death has just passed us. It’s time to remember a legend.
Walter Jerry Payton was born in Columbia, Mississippi on July 25th, 1954. He grew up as a very active youth participating in several activities including participating in his local church and Boy Scouts. He was in his high school marching band, joined track and sang in the choir.
He was also a good student and would you believe he seemed to prefer music over other activities including football? Payton’s life would be filled with musical adventures. His high school sporting career began in his first year in high school as he participated in track as a long jumper.
One thing that Payton didn’t do in high school, right away, was play football. Some of the reasoning why Payton didn’t want to play the sport immediately was because of the fact he didn’t want to play against his brother Eddie. Eddie was a football star and Walter wanted to wait until Eddie graduated from high school to play. A few others also claim he didn’t want to play and then have both he and Eddie get hurt which would upset his mother.
Payton started his football career as a high school junior. He was an immediate star at running back and garnered all-state honors. His high school football career began with an electric start after he ran for a 65 yard touchdown on his first carry. Everything seemed to fall into place from that point forward.
In 1969, when Payton’s high school combined with another high school (Columbia High School) there was some danger in Payton being lost in the shuffle. He kept on going with the program and was the star of the new combined football program. His talent was undeniable and his production was solid. He scored in every game he played in during his junior and senior seasons.
He also starred in other sports as a youth including basketball, baseball and track.
Despite the fact he was an outstanding football player and a great athlete, Payton did not receive any offers from SEC schools. Payton would find offers from other schools instead of from those SEC schools which looked for talent in his area.
He did commit to Kansas State University at first but reversed field and went on to get his education and play football at Jackson State University. Incidentally, it was also the same school that his brother Eddie went to and played at as well. This probably swayed Payton (to go to Jackson State) in a big way.
Jackson State was a little bit of a “football factory” in its own right. Some future pros came out of the smaller school including Jackie Slater, Jerome Barkum and Robert Brazile. Of course, Payton would end up being the best and most well-recognized of all of them.
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While in college, Payton had more than 3,500 yards on the ground and averaged 6.1 yards per carry. He scored 65 touchdowns breaking a record. He was one of the best running backs in all of college football.
His best collegiate game came in Payton’s sophomore season. Jackson State was playing Lane College and in that game Payton scored seven touchdowns along with several two point conversions. Altogether, he had a total of 46 points. His team beat Lane 72-0.
Payton earned several accolades while he was in college including All-American and Player of the Year honors.
You can’t have a story about Payton without knowing where his ever popular nickname “sweetness” came from. It stuck with him in college and it’s been said that the nickname essentially had three sources. His athletic ability on the field is one source for the nickname. His personality (being so kind) is another reason he earned the nickname it is said. The final suggestion on where he got his nickname comes from it being a way to describe his running style.
Payton was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft. He was the fourth overall selection that year.
Chicago wasn’t the ideal landing spot for anyone in the timeframe that Payton got there. The Bears were losing a lot of games and there weren’t a lot of positive things happening for them in the mid-70’s.
Walter was essentially the replacement for legend Gayle Sayers who had retired in 1972. It took them a little while to find someone to replace the legend and they hoped Payton would live up to the same standards and the same ability that the Kansas Comet had. At first it appeared as if the Bears might have “missed” with Payton but things would definitely get better.
Payton’s first game in a Bear’s uniform was a little bit rough. He didn’t gain any yards in the eight carries he had. It was not an indication of how is career would go.
He completed his first season with 679 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers weren’t anything to brag about but one thing he could brag about was leading the NFL in yards per return on kickoffs.
His second year in Chicago was much better. Payton rushed for 1390 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was voted to the Pro Bowl and was the game’s MVP. Year three saw Payton rush for 1852 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the league in scoring that season.
One of the most talked about games of Payton’s career came in the 1977 NFL season. Against the Bear’s division rival, the Minnesota Vikings, Payton rushed for a then NFL record 275 yards. The previous record had been held by OJ Simpson several seasons before. (This record has since been broken by Adrian Peterson, who holds the record, along with three other players). Interestingly enough, it is said that Payton played the game with a fever over 100 degrees as he was battling the flu. It’s a true testament to his ability and desire.
The Bears had only been able to get to the playoffs twice in Payton’s earlier years. Change was coming and it came in the form of Mike Ditka. The former Chicago Bear tight end was hired to replace Neil Armstrong in 1982 and things appeared to be looking up for Payton and the rest of the Bears. It was a step in the right direction.
On their way to a Super Bowl Payton made a huge “pit stop” in 1984. During that season, Payton broke the single season rushing record previously held by Jim Brown. The mark was 12,312 yards. Payton would own that record until 2002 when Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith would break it.
The 1984 season saw Payton rush for over 1400 yards. The 1985 season, the season where it all came together for the Bears was a big one for him as he ran for over 1500 yards.
The exploits of the 1985 season are well-known but what most fans will remember, aside from the victory in the Super Bowl itself, is the Super Bowl Shuffle. Do you think that Payton would have missed a chance to strut his stuff and show the world his musical capability? He didn’t pass up the chance. He may have had the best part in the entire video.
Chicago went on to a 46-10 win in the Super Bowl, against the New England Patriots, that season. Payton was held to zero touchdowns in the postseason including the Super Bowl. Some think that the coaching staff didn’t give him the opportunity to score, especially in the Super Bowl and Ditka did say that he was not happy about Walter not having a touchdown in the biggest game of Payton’s life. But if you look at the game you will notice that the New England defenders were concentrating heavily on Payton. This was confirmed by quarterback Jim McMahon. Payton could do a lot of damage and the opponent did what they could to take him out.
There are fans in some circles that think that it was unfair that William “The Refrigerator” Perry got into the end zone on a play that Payton could have easily scored on. People still talk about this over thirty years later.
Payton only played two more seasons following the Super Bowl season of 1985. The season of 1986 saw him rush for 1333 yards. His Bears went on to win their division again but they failed to beat the Washington Redskins in the playoffs. It was at the close of this season that Payton would tell the world he would play just one more year. The 1987 season would be his swan song.
His final season in the NFL was a low point for Payton. He had only 533 yards rushing yards and saw his hopes for a second Super Bowl dashed at the hands of the Redskins in the playoffs. This writer remembers that game very well. At its end, you could see Payton on the bench holding his head in his hands in the cold of that January day. It would be the last time Payton would put on a Bears uniform. How surreal.
Payton ended his career in the NFL with the Bears and Chicago was the only team that he played for. His final numbers were 16,726 yards on the ground an NFL record at the time. He scored 110 touchdowns. Payton caught 492 passes for a total of 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He helped break many Chicago records including the ones for most receptions, touchdowns, rushing yards and even touchdown passes by someone other than a quarterback.
One of the more interesting things about Payton’s 13 year career with the Bears was his durability. It’s a fact that he only missed just one game during his entire time playing in Chicago. One single game. Compared to the players of today, that is a mark of excellence. He was very durable, very reliable and one of the most athletically gifted performers in the history of sports.
Payton’s post football recognition was pretty significant. He had two great events in his post football career. The first came when his number 34 jersey was retired by the Bears.
What was probably his biggest honor came when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. His son Jarrett was his presenter and he gave a very touching speech at the ceremony.
I pulled a couple of quotes out of his speech I thought were nice to share.
Payton said “Football is a team game and it takes everyone on that team to make a product such as these Hall of Famers are sitting under this tend and the ones that are being inducted today. And they will be the first ones to say, that when you stood up here and accepted being inducted here they did it with a great deal of embarrassment because you were pointing all the accolades towards them and they realized in their hearts that there were teammates that threw blocks and caught passes and talked to them when they were down”.
Another great quote from Payton’s speech is, as he said “I am going to close by saying life is short, it is oh so sweet, there are a lot of people that we meet as we walk through these shallow halls, but the things that mean the most are the friendships that you meet and take along with you.”
Payton had a very active life after he retired. He was involved in an attempt to bring an NFL team to the city of St. Louis. He tried to become the NFL’s first minority owner in the venture which would have been a huge move ahead in the league. Discontent among the group caused the project to fail and new franchises were given to Jacksonville and Carolina instead of St. Louis.
He dabbled in the racing industry as he became a co-owner of Dale Coyne Racing which was part of the Indy Car establishment. Payton actually had an accident racing a car but he was not injured.
Another venture Payton became involved in was owning a restaurant. The restaurant was located in Aurora, Illinois and was named Walter Payton’s Roadhouse.
There were Payton sightings in different circles. One of his more famous appearances came in 1987 when he joined quarterback Joe Montana as host on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
As a side to his personal life, Payton was married to his wife Connie in 1976. They had two children, Jarrett born in 1980 and Brittney born in 1985.
In February of 1999, Payton admitted to the world that he was suffering for a very rare disease that affected his liver called primary schlerosing cholangitis. This disease was most likely the cause of the bile duct cancer which Payton suffered from. The illness was terminal.
Not being one to lie down and give up without a fight, Payton continued to be strong throughout the last few months of his life. He participated in public awareness about organ donation doing some public service announcements about the value of that kind of donation. Using his fame he hoped to help others in spite of not being able to be helped himself.
The last time the public saw Payton was at Wrigley Field in April 1999. He threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game with his former head coach, Mike Ditka. You could see that the disease was weakening Payton greatly. Still he fought on.
The greatest battle of his life ended on November 1st, 1999.
The NFL honored Payton immediately and the Bears added special #34 logos on their uniforms soon after his passing.
His family had a public funeral. There were several famous speakers present including teammates from the Bears, including Dan Hampton. The reverend Jesse Jackson was there as was “then” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. There was also a private service that had several well-known attendees. The Governor of Illinois at the time, George Ryan was there as was Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley. Many of his former teammates came.
But even though he was gone, he was definitely not forgotten. His legacy lives on even 17 years after his death.
There are those of us, like myself, who remember watching Payton run the ball and him having his characteristic high-stepping leg kick scoring touchdowns. There are the stiff arms and the times he would run through defenders instead of running around them. He would never run out-of-bounds and delivered more punishment than he took. His running style was unique and very effective. The proof is in his stats.
People will also remember his leaping ability. There were several times when Payton would just jump, without a “run”, high in the air and over top of those trying to tackle him.
Payton was not one to participate too much in celebrations on the field. The age of lengthy and creative touchdown celebrations was starting to come into popularity at the time Payton played but he would have none of that. He got into the end zone many times over his career but never indulged in celebrating his “victories”. He wasn’t one to show off.
The memories of Payton still linger and there are still reminders of him. One way that Payton is remembered is through the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. The honor is given yearly to an NFL player who does excellent charity work and is exemplary on the field. Some of the award’s past winners include Anquan Boldin, Drew Brees and former Chicago Bear Charles Tillman.
The Walter and Connie Payton foundation has done a lot of work since Payton’s passing. They concentrate on spreading the word about organ donations and try to gather support. The organization does a lot of fund-raising work and sponsors several events including a run called the Sweetness run as well as a toy drive among other events. The three remaining members of the Payton family, Connie, Jarrett and Brittany are very active in the foundation.
Several NFL players have credited Payton with being their inspiration as football players, in particular, running back. LaDainian Tomlinson, now retired, credited Payton with being a big inspiration in his effort to become a top NFL rusher. Even the “enemy” idolized Payton. Ahman Green, a retired former Green Bay Packers running back stated that Payton was one of his idols growing up. Emmitt Smith, the retired Dallas Cowboys start is said to have cried following his breaking Payton’s record as the all-time leading rusher. He idolized Payton as well.
And then there was Payton’s son, Jarrett. Inspired by his father, Jarrett completed his college career as a running back at the University of Miami. He went on to play in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans as well as NFL Europe, the Canadian Football League and the Indoor Football League. He is a champion of his father’s legacy yet today.
Several books have been written about Payton over the last few years. Payton, along with Don Yaeger, put together thoughts on his life in the book Never Die Easy. That is a great recollection of his life. There are several other books as well, all worth reading.
The legacy of Walter Payton lives on. Bears fans will always remember his greatness, his style and his contribution to the NFL’s most storied franchise. For this writer, he was not only the greatest Bear of all but the greatest football player of all time.
Perhaps Mike Ditka summed it up best. He called Payton “the very best football player I’ve ever seen, period, at any position.”
He may easily be the best football player ever both on and off the field.