Walter Payton, Bears RB, 1975-1987
When I was between the ages of 8 and 10, I used to stack pillows up on the end of my parent's living room couch. I would then dress up in my Bears uniform and dive over the pile like a running back. Other times on Sunday mornings, I would don the same uniform and run around the back yard, emulating a certain goose-stepping leg kick I would watch on television later that day.
That person I was trying to imitate was Bears running back Walter Payton, who was then a 26 year old NFL star. On this I reflected as I sat in Soldier Field on November 6, 1999, for the late Payton's public memorial ceremony. I was not ashamed to tell people how I cried a lot that week, not for an athlete that I used to worship for his athletic skills, but for a wonderful human being that was taken from this life far too soon. I did not, and still do not, call athletes my "heroes" because of their athletic ability. But that week, thousands of young men like me lost a part of their childhood with Walter Payton's passing.
Growing up
Walter Payton was born in 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi, in the heart of the racially-charged South. Edward and Alyne Payton had three children, Eddie, Walter and Pam, who entertained themselves growing up in the woods around the small town, before the likes of Playstation and television were the staples of American youth. Along with exploring, fishing, and hiking, Eddie and Walter became involved in every sport they could. During the summers, Alyne would have a pile of topsoil dumped outside the house, and the boys worked all summer long to move that pile throughout the yard, little by little. Alyne would say she arranged for the dirt as a project to keep the boys off the street and out of trouble, and it worked.
Walter played football his first three years at all-black John Jefferson High. His senior year, the decision was made to integrate Columbia High, and Walter made the transition seamlessly. One teammate remarked that the racial integration issues didn't bother them; that being racist was for the adults.
After high school, the options for a black athlete in the south were limited, even in the late 1960's. Though schools like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana State began recruiting blacks, there were more opportunities for players like Payton to head to California or Big Ten schools. Most, like Payton, chose to stay closer to home at traditionally black schools such as Jackson State, in Jackson, Mississippi. Thus, Walter chose to follow older brother Eddie there. Eddie had been a star there, and would head to his own NFL career as a kick returner with Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota.
At Jackson State, Payton excelled and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. Many believed he would have won, had he played at a school with any amount of notoriety, which Jackson State lacked. Walter excelled not only in athletics, but in academics as well. He even made a national appearance on Soul Train, performing the "Cock Walk", a dance move he created. By early 1975, the big city and the NFL beckoned.
With the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL draft, the Bears selected Payton. Chicago's running game hadn't been the same since Gale Sayers' retirement due to injuries in 1971. It remains a mystery how Payton lasted until the fourth pick until this day. Taken before him were QB Steve Bartkowski by Atlanta, DT Randy White by Dallas, and G Ken Huff by Baltimore. It was recounted later by then-Cowboys assistant Mike Ditka that Dallas engaged in heated arguments for Payton leading up to the pick, but relented and took White.
Payton's illustrious career began with a less-than-stellar performance. In his first NFL game, Walter carried the ball eight times for zero net yards. Although 1975 began with a performance that didn't merit writing home about, the season finale did. At New Orleans, Payton ripped off perhaps the best touchdown run of his career, finishing with 134 yards on 20 carries, the Bears' best rushing performance since Sayers resided in Chicago. Walter finished his rookie season with 679 yards and seven touchdowns, the lowest total of his football career. Also, the biggest letdown of his career occurred that season, as Payton was held out of the only game he would miss in 13 seasons. Not because he couldn't play, but because the trainer wouldn't let him. But the best was definitely yet to come.
Payton topped 1,000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns in 1976, and was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1977. Chicago went to the playoffs after the '77 season, which also featured a 275-yard game by #34, which stood as the best single-game performance in NFL history until it was surpassed by three yards in 2000.
It was during the years 1976-1981 that the Bears became defined by Payton. Payton was the Bears, and jokes circulated that their game plan was as simple as Payton left, Payton right, Payton middle, punt. Although an asterisk can't be placed next to Walter's career statistics, it must be remembered that during the bulk of his career, he was running behind patchwork offensive lines. Many highlight films feature Payton running off-tackle to the right, stopping and ending up sweeping to the left, avoiding being trapped for a loss in the backfield. Sweetness, which became Payton's nickname early in his career, rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season from 1976-'81, earned the NFC rushing crown in 1979, and made the Pro Bowl after each season.
Though 8-8 and 6-10 seasons in 1981 were no fun on the field, Payton helped make life fun in the locker room by becoming the club's biggest joker and purveyor of practical jokes. Some notable pranks Sweetness loved to pull were sneaking into the locker room before everyone else to lock the entire team out in the snow, taking over the Halas Hall switchboard to answer the organization's phone calls, and repeatedly calling Matt Suhey's wife in a high-pitched voice, pretending to be a girlfriend. Perhaps this "Sweetness spirit" was the underlying fuel to the charismatic Bears that would take the field a few years down the road.
Ditka Arrives
Most historians trace the turning point in Payton's career, from being the best player on a losing team, to the best contributor to a winning team, to the arrival of Mike Ditka as Chicago's new coach in 1982. In Ditka's first speech to the players in the Spring of 1982, he stated that his team would be going to the Super Bowl, and some would be there and some wouldn't. This was the first statement of confidence the team had heard from a leader in some time, and Ditka intended to back his words up. Along with bringing a winning attitude, Ditka, along with General Manager Jim Finks, for the first time started assembling a supporting cast that would ensure Payton's success. An already tough defense was bolstered with such players as Richard Dent, Dave Duerson and Wilbur Marshall. The offense, once featuring Payton as its only weapon, added gambling Quarterback Jim McMahon, reliable and speedy receivers Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon, and assembled a dominating offensive line, featuring Jim Covert, Mark Bortz, Jay Hilgenberg, Kurt Becker, Tom Thayer, and Keith VanHorne. After 3-6 and 8-8 seasons in 1982 and 1983, Chicago felt they were primed for a real run at the postseason in 1984.
In addition to dominating the NFC Central by the middle of the '84 campaign, Walter Payton was poised to break Jim Brown's all-time rushing record in the season's sixth game. Sweetness broke the record early in the third quarter on a toss left, and after a few celebratory high-fives, in his typical fashion he urged everyone off of the field to allow the game to continue. After the game, Payton dedicated his achievement to all the athletes that didn't have the chance to achieve their goals-men such as the late Brian Piccolo. Injecting his typical playful antics into the day, Payton finished his postgame press conference by speaking to President Reagan and asking him to give his best regards to Nancy.
The '84 Bears finished the regular season 10-6, and won their first postseason game since 1963 at Washington. During that game, Payton threw a touchdown pass to TE Pat Dunsmore, adding to his long list of achievements. The following week, Chicago lost the NFC Championship at San Francisco, and TV cameras showed Payton sitting dejectedly on the bench. After the game Payton voiced his sorrow to the press. His team had come so far, and tomorrow is promised to noone, so who knew if he'd get his shot again at the elusive Super Bowl ring.
That shot came during the ever-celebrated 1985 season. Payton made perhaps the least-heralded but best block of his career when he leveled a blitzing Vikings linebacker at Minnesota. That pancake allowed Jim McMahon to complete the first of three TD bombs in Chicago's comeback victory. The next week, Payton threw a TD pass to none other than QB McMahon in a 45-10 thrashing of Washington. Despite the team losing to Miami after a 12-0 start, Payton set the NFL record for most consecutive 100-yard games at 11. In that game, it was reported that McMahon changed plays sent in from Ditka to ensure Payton's place in the record book. The day after the loss, Payton took the starring role in the Super Bowl Shuffle, a recording that went gold and remains the anthem of Chicago sports. Finally on January 26, 1986, Payton reached the pinnacle of sports greatness as Chicago defeated New England 46-10 in the Super Bowl. If teammates were asked who the victory would be dedicated to, unequivocally they would say Payton in tribute to his outstanding career and dedication to the sport. However, the victory ended up being bittersweet for Sweetness. Despite Chicago rushing for five touchdowns, Payton wasn't given the ball to score, as New England scripted their entire game plan to stop him. Ditka later called this his greatest regret in all his career-not getting Payton into the endzone in football's biggest game. While expressing disappointment, Payton later let bygones be bygones in the usual Payton tradition.
Sweetness continued to carry the Bears through 1986, during which the team looked to be a lock for another Super Bowl championship. Despite setting defensive records throughout the '86 campaign, quarterback problems spelled doom, and Chicago lost their opening playoff game to Washington. In 1987, Payton announced that year would be his last. Sweetness split carries through the season with his heir apparent Neal Anderson, and was given a tearful sendoff in his last game at Soldier Field. Chicago again exited the playoffs at the hands of the Washington Redskins. Following the loss, which ended with the quintessential extra effort on a failed run by Payton, Sweetness sat at the end of the Bears bench with his head in his hands, trying to take in every bit of his Hall of Fame football career.
Life After Football
In 1988, Payton joined the Chicago Bears Board of Directors. Later, he would pursue ownership of a new NFL franchise in St. Louis, a plan which would ultimately not come to fruition. After that, he formed a CART racing team with partner Dale Coyne, and survived a spectacular collision while racing at Elkhart Lake in 1993. In 1996, Walter Payton's Roundhouse, a restaurant and brewpub featuring the Payton Hall of Fame, was opened in Aurora, IL. Payton's son Jarrett started high school in 1995, and stunned the public by deciding to play soccer over football at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, IL. Payton supported the decision fully, but Jarrett made the switch to football his Junior and Senior years. In late 1998, Walter and his wife Connie began helping Jarrett entertain scholarship offers and were primed for a public announcement regarding where he would attend college.
Sadly, instead of making a happy announcement in early 1999, Payton faced the media in Chicago to announce that he had been diagnosed with PSC (Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis), a condition that may lead to cancer of the bile ducts in the liver. Suddenly the lines that Walter used earlier in his career, such as "Never Die Easy", and "Tomorrow is promised to no one," struck close to home. Payton had been feeling sick since the middle of 1998, and was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Walter's appearance had some people wondering what could be wrong for several months, but in his typical fashion, Payton attributed his gaunt appearance to preparing for a marathon. After that February day, the city of Chicago collectively held their breath and lent their prayers to their greatest sports figure and his family.
Payton spent the remaining months of his life underneath the public radar, as he always wanted to. Outside of an appearance in April at Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, Payton avoided the limelight. The only public updates on his condition were from his family, who occasionally spoke to the media optimistically. Payton had been put on the waiting list for a donor liver, but would not be moved up the list due to his notoriety. What was not disclosed by the family was that during the Summer of '99, it was discovered that his cancer had spread, and the likelihood of him qualifying for a transplant was fading. Payton spent his remaining time with his family and close friends such as Mike Singletary and Matt Suhey. During October of that year, rumors and speculation ran rampant in the press about Payton's condition, until November 1st, when it was announced he had passed away.
His Legacy
Chicago went into full-scale mourning that Monday evening, a grieving that lasted the entire week. Tears were shed by millions like me that grew up emulating the great running back, as well as those that didn't watch football but remembered him taking the time to shake their hand and say hello. John Madden, Mike Ditka and others eulogized Payton at his funeral, and thousands of fans and the '99 Bears team showed up at Soldier Field that Saturday to celebrate his life. The next day, the NFL held a moment of silence at all games, and the Bears upset Green Bay on a last-second blocked field goal by Bryan Robinson. In one of the few utterly religious moments of my life, I believed that Walter Payton actually pulled some strings from heaven by arranging for the miracle finish.
Perhaps Payton's greatest achievement in his passing remains that organ donation in Illinois has skyrocketed since the announcement of his illness. Connie Payton continues to operate the Walter and Connie Payton foundation, which among other things donates Christmas toys to thousands of underprivileged children. And despite his untimely passing, Walter Payton's kind, compassionate, and humorous character will live on in the hearts and minds of people around the world for eternity.
Further Reading
Links The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation.
In the Hall Hall of Fame page. © 2000-2016 Roy Taylor