Sports in Illinois History
Sweetness- The Career of Walter Payton


"The thing I remember most about Payton was that he brought everything he had to the game. He was such a complete back, that there was no weakness. One word comes to mind when setting up the game plan for Walter Payton, respect. You respected him for being a great runner, a great blocker and a great pass receiver. A guy who was always going to be out there, being the true superstar that he is. He was always a gentleman and a family man, all the things you admire in a person."

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A hero. The greatest football player of all time. One of the most talented athletes in the history of the world. All of these praises describe a man who only wanted to try hard and be the best all around person he could be. He wanted to help everyone, and although he is no longer living, his legacy lives on today. This man, this icon, is Walter Payton.
Walter Payton was born on July 25, 1954, in Columbia, Missouri. Despite the urging of Walters ever-athletic father, Payton did not begin playing football until his junior year in high school. He may have gotten a late start, but by the time he left, he had left his mark. By the time he left Columbia High School, a strong upper body and muscular horse like legs made the undersized (5-foot-10, 200 pound) Payton the prototype of a college running back. However, since he only played two seasons of competitive football, many large colleges did not heavily recruit him.
He eventually was persuaded to attend Jackson State. He chose Jackson State over a few larger, more glamorous schools because his brother, Eddie, was already playing football there. It was here that he picked up his lingering nickname, Sweetness, due to his ability to shake would-be tacklers with minimal effort.
Payton broke into the Jackson State starting lineup as a freshman in 1971. Over his four years of football at Jackson, Payton would amass 464 total points, an NCAA Division II record that stood until 1998. Payton was not only one of the best running backs in Division II history; he also developed other skills that seemed to come almost naturally to him. He turned himself into a multiple threat as a running back, receiver, punter and place kicker. Those record-breaking 464 points were composed of 66 touchdowns, five field goals, and 53 extra points. Payton also received accolades outside of football while in college. One year, he was a finalist in the nation Soul Train dance competition, leading Payton to briefly consider a professional dance career. We should all be grateful that he chose football.
Despite playing for a small Division II school, Payton received some consideration for the prestigious Heisman Trophy, awarded each year to the top college football player in the nation. Before Paytons senior season at Jackson, Dick Young, a New York columnist for The Sporting News, predicted that he would be the first person from a traditionally black school to win the Heisman. Even though Payton fell well short in the balloting for the Heisman, he was the first running back selected (4th overall) in the 1975 draft. He was taken by the Chicago Bears.
As a rookie, Payton immediately became a fan favorite due to his hard work ethic. Pat Summerall, a sports commentator for many years, once said, There was never any play I mean no single play when you didn't get 110 percent of what he had. I mean everything was done full tilt. In his rookie season as a Bear, he established himself as a reliable runner and blocker. He ended up with a respectable 679 yards that year. His following season, he won the NFC rushing title with 1,390 yards. He may have in fact won the league title that year had he not been injured before the Bears final game. OJ Simpson won the crown with 1,503 total rushing yards. Payton was known as one of the hardest hitting running backs in the league. If Im going to get hit, why let the guy whos going to hit me get the easiest and best shot? I explode into the guy whos trying to tackle me. He seemed unstoppable at times, and he knew it. Tacklers could not stop those ever-pounding legs, those runs where it looked like his knees didnt even bend, his quick changes of direction, his bursts through the line and his overpowering collisions.
The next year, 1977, was Paytons best season as a professional. He was voted the leagues Most Valuable Player after leading the NFL with 1,852 rushing yards. The 1977 season also contained his most impressive individual game effort. On November 20, two days after Payton was bed-ridden with the flu, he ran for 77 first quarter yards against the Minnesota Vikings. By halftime, the total was up to 144. After three quarters, he had 192. In the forth quarter he broke off a 58-yard run to finish the game with 275 yards, two more than OJ Simpsons already existing record of 273. He finished the game with an incredible 40 carries.
Between the years of 1976 and 1980, Payton led the NFC in rushing every single season. His work ethic is what led to his on-field success. His off-season workouts became legendary. Besides weight training, his daily routine included runs along the beach near the Pearl River in Mississippi and over slopes and along obstacles.
In the early 1980s, Payton was on pace to break he career rushing mark set by Jim Brown at 12,312 yards. Despite arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees after the 1983 season, Payton continued to run like the wind. He called the operations my 11,000-yard checkup.
In 1984, Payton broke Browns mark with a six-yard run from scrimmage against the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field in Chicago. The game was stopped for three minutes as teammates and photographers flooded the field and surrounded him. Still eluding Payton though was a Super Bowl ring. The ring was his in 1985.
The Super Bowl-winning team of 1985 was made up of several well-known and well-liked players: Bad-boy quarterback Jim McMahon, an enormous lineman named William Perry who was known as The Refrigerator, Buddy Ryans knock-down drag-out defense, and, of course, coach Mike Ditka, who was one of Paytons biggest fans. Says Ditka, "He was the best football player I've ever seen. It's sad to me because he had a lot greater impact on me than I had on him. And he led by example on the field. He was the complete player. He did everything. He was the greatest runner, but he was also probably the best blocking back you ever saw."
Even among all of the flashy characters on the team, Payton was clearly the teams most valuable player. During that season, he gained 1,551 yards on the ground and another 483 on 49 pass receptions, leading the Bears to an 18-1 record, including a 46-10 pounding of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Paytons last remarkable year was in 1986, when he reached the 1,000-yard plateau for the 10th time in his career. He also became the first player to reach the 20,000-yard mark for career all-purpose yards. In 1987, old age and injuries began to plague Payton, when he announced that it would be his last season in the NFL. Before the final game of the Bears regular-season, Paytons number 34 uniform was retired.
When it was all said and done, Payton had played a total of 13 seasons while only missing two games due to injury. His career totals include 125 touchdowns (110 rushing and 15 receiving), 21,803 all-purpose yards, 77 games with at least 100 yards rushing, an NFL record 3,838 carries, nine Pro Bowl selections, and the record setting 16,726 rushing yards (equivalent to 9 and a half miles). These astonishing career figures led Payton to the Hall of Fame in 1993 and landed him on the NFLs 75th Anniversary team in 1994. Payton was also enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Despite the numbers, Payton wanted to be remembered for his hard work. I want to be remembered like Pete Rose- Charlie Hustle. I want people to say, Wherever he was, he was always giving it his all.
On November 1, 1999, nearly 12 years after his retirement from football, Payton died of bile duct cancer that had been discovered earlier that year during treatment for a rare form of liver disease. While Payton was ill, he did not want anyone to feel sorry for him. In turn, he did not announce his sickness publicly until college football teams were recruiting his son. For the first time in a long time, Payton was being seen regularly on television. It was quite apparent to viewers everywhere that Walter had lost a substantial amount of weight and appeared frail. He finally disclosed his illness to prevent speculation of what might actually be wrong with him and to avoid having conflicts between the media and the rest of his family. Although he was in need of a liver transplant, he never wanted his celebrity status to interfere with the process. Sadly, his cancer progressed so rapidly that he was unable to receive a donor organ. Walter Payton was 45 years old when he passed away. Payton wanted to use his illness to educate the public about organ transplants and his widow, Connie Payton, carries on that work through public service announcements about the need for organs. Even at the most difficult point in his life, Payton continued to give 110% and never lost hope.
Payton was not only the greatest running back ever, but he was also one of the all time great people in sports. His charity, the Walter Payton Foundation, he raised amazing amounts of money that is used for cancer research and the development of new technology. Although Walter is gone, his legacy is remembered by helping people who are suffering through the disease that eventually led to his death.
Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, best summed up the wife of Walter Payton when he said, "All of us in the NFL family are saddened by the loss of Walter Payton. He was without a doubt one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Walter exemplified class and all of us in sports should honor him by striving to perpetuate his standard of excellence. Walter was an inspiration in everything he did. The tremendous grace and dignity he displayed in his final months reminded us again why 'Sweetness' was the perfect nickname for Walter Payton."


Click here to visit the Walter Payton Cancer Fund homepage.