By Pete Fierle
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Official Pro Football Hall of Fame 2009 Yearbook. It is available in bookstores nationwide or in the Hall of Fame’s online here. Buy a copy now>>>
“My coach at Jackson State, Bob Hill, always said that if you’re going to die, you should die hard, never die easily,” once commented .
While the future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back was referencing his running style, the statement eerily foreshadowed a life that ended much too soon.
Payton, while having a friendly, fun, and outgoing public persona, was a very private person. That made it even more shocking when, on February 2, 1999, he held an emotional press conference in Chicago. There, he announced he was battling a rare condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis where his bile ducts were blocked. At first, the diagnosis called for a liver transplant and his name was added to a long waiting list.
Nine months later, on November 1, 1999, Payton passed away in his home at the age of 45. Not shared until after his death was the fact that he had also been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The cancer progressed quickly and after it was determined a liver transplant was not an option, he received radiation and chemotherapy treatments. After revealing his ailment, he battled the disease on his own terms, much like how he attacked life.
Born Walter Jerry Payton on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi, he was the youngest of three children born to Peter and Alyne Payton. During his 1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, he shed some light on the role his siblings played in developing his athletic prowess on the football field.
He shared that when he was a youngster, his mom once left instructions that he and his siblings were to clean the house before she returned from work. As the youngest, Walter felt he didn’t have to help. His sister and brother thought otherwise.
“These guys beat me up,” he lightheartedly recalled. “That's the reason why I had the moves that I did because when you have an angry sister and angry brother chasing you with a broom and a wet dish rag, you tend to pick up moves.”
One thing is for sure. had some moves; a style all unto itself. His high-stepping elusiveness while carrying the ball and his strength exemplified by his trademark straight-arm, Payton ran right into the record books during his 13-season career with the from 1975 to 1987.
Walter, however, was not necessarily born to run. As a child he was more interested in music and school studies than sports. That changed when his older brother Eddie, who played in the Canadian Football League before spending five seasons in the National Football League with Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and Minnesota from 1977 to 1982, convinced him to try out for the high school team. Walter made the squad as a sophomore and on his very first carry, raced 65 yards. His skills grew immensely and he gained attention from many major colleges.
He opted to follow in Eddie’s footsteps and went to Jackson State. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications in three and a half years and also started work on his Masters. On the football field, he rushed for more than 3,500 yards in four seasons and scored a NCAA record 464 points via his 66 touchdowns, five field goals, and 53 PATs. While at Jackson State, observers labeled him with his famous nickname of “Sweetness” because of his smooth, stylish nature of running.
The Bears drafted “Sweetness” with the fourth overall pick of the 1975 NFL Draft and he quickly became a fan-favorite in Chicago. The 5’10”, 200-pound runner was an instant superstar in the NFL. His durability, as a result of a dedicated year-round training regimen, became almost as legendary as his record-setting rushing totals. He missed just one game in his first 12 seasons and that came during his rookie campaign. Years later, he still insisted he could have played that day but it was a coach’s decision to hold him out.
Payton rushed for 679 yards on 196 carries and scored 7 touchdowns during his rookie season. He also gave a glimpse of how multi-dimensional he could be when he caught 33 passes for 213 yards and led the league in kickoff returns.
“He is the complete football player,” observed Hall of Fame general manager who drafted Payton.
By his second season, Payton reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first time when he rushed for 1,390 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He finished his career as the first player ever to record ten 1,000-yard seasons.
His finest individual season came in 1977 when he averaged slightly more than 132 yards per game in the last season that the NFL played a 14-game regular season schedule. He finished with a career-high 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns. He added an additional 269 yards on 27 receptions and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Payton was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
One game in particular that season defined Payton as a football player. He was recovering from the flu and appeared somewhat sluggish for a game against the divisional rival Minnesota Vikings on November 20, 1977. The coaches weren’t sure he’d be able to shake off the effects of the sickness in time to make much of a contribution that week.
All doubt was erased by halftime after he carried the ball 26 times, gained 144 yards and scored a touchdown to help give the Bears a 10-0 lead. His outstanding play continued in the second half and soon the Soldier Field crowd sensed history was being made. With just over three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, No. 34 broke loose for a 58-yard dash to the nine-yard-line, five yards short of the all-time single-game rushing record. Two carries and seven yards later, Payton’s rushing total for the game reached a record 275 yards. The mark stood until a year after his death.
Bears fans had been treated to so many fine moments by . But none was sweeter than on October 7, 1984 in a game against the New Orleans Saints. Payton was closing in on the all-time career rushing total of . The Soldier Field crowd was electric that day with anticipation of the record run. The moment came inside the first minute of the second half when Payton picked up six yards to eclipse Brown’s record. The game was stopped as teammates and the fans celebrated Payton’s accomplishment. The Bears won 20-7 and Payton rushed for 154 yards and scored a touchdown.
Payton played three more seasons during which time he captured a Super Bowl ring in the ’85 season. He knew the time was right to step away from the game following the 1987 campaign and he embarked on a successful post-playing career that included multiple business ventures.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen and probably the best who’s ever played the game,” surmised Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka who coached Payton with the Bears.
There was little else for “Sweetness” to accomplish on the football field. He retired with a record 21,803 combined net yards and 125 total touchdowns. The seven-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler rushed for a record 16,726 yards and had 492 career receptions. He also completed 11 of 34 pass attempts, eight of which were for touchdowns.
In an interview around the time he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Payton summarized his career and his fun-loving outlook when he recounted, “I had 13 great years in the NFL. What I’ve done is hanging on the wall. Who knows if it’s going to stick or not. But I had a great deal of fun doing it, and that’s all that matters.”
Prophetically Payton shared during his speech from the front steps of the Hall of Fame in ‘93, “I am going to close by saying life is short, it is oh so sweet.”
Sweet it was for sure. Football fans in Chicagoland and around the country had a lot of fun watching play football. Never will it make sense that he left this earth at such a young age. But the sweet memories of his accomplishments in the NFL will live on forever.
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