Walter Payton‘s Hall of Fame-worthy career set an example for every NFL player to come after him. Even though Payton passed nearly a decade ago, Bears fans remember him to this day as if he had only retired last week. Sportscasters still measure new players against Payton, an intimidating standard to be sure.
Payton was born in Columbia, MS in 1954 and came to the game relatively late in life for an NFL player. It was not until high school that he discovered his talent for and love of the game. He continued to play in college at Jackson State in Mississippi.
Payton was the fourth draft pick for the 1975 Chicago Bears, a year where he was also fourth in contention for the Heisman Trophy. His first season got off to a slow start with 679 yards and 7 touchdowns – but in the final game of the season, Payton showed the world what he was capable of. Payton finished out the season with a 134 yard run in a season ending game against the Saints, Payton pulled off a feat not seen by Chicago fans since Gale Sayers was still wearing the uniform.
His second year as a Bear saw him with 13 touchdowns and 1,000 yards, a performance which won him the NFL’s 1977 MVP title. The Bears went to the playoffs this year and Payton ran an impressive 274 yards in a single game, a record which stood for 23 years.
With 16,726 total career-rushing yards, 110 touchdowns, and seventy-seven 100-yard rushing games throughout his 13 years in the NFL, Walter was fondly given the nickname “Sweetness,” early in his career.
Payton made it look easy, with 1,000 yards dashed in each season between 1976 and 1981. Payton played in every Pro Bowl from 1979 until his retirement. His rushing record has been broken since, but is record may still stand today were it not for NFL strikes which cut short the 1975 and 197 seasons.
With the addition of coach Mike Ditka to the team, Payton saw a new batch of players arrive and the Bears were better than ever. Payton lead a division-leading Chicago Bears and broke Jim Brown’s record for yardage in 1984; ever the gentleman, Payton dedicated this feat to athletes whose careers had ended early due to injuries or illness.
Everyone remembers the “Super Bowl Shuffle” of 1986, still heard from time to time in Chicago. This was the year that the Bears made their very first appearance in the Super Bowl and they did not disappoint the fans, despite Payton’s failure to make a touchdown in the game. The Bears triumphed over the New England Patriots 46-10.
In 1987, Walter Payton said goodbye to football with a tremendous send off at Soldier Field in Chicago. Walter was not one to slow down after his retirement from the NFL and sat on the Bears Board of Directors in 1988, started a CART racing team, and opened a restaurant brewpub. In 1993, his greatest triumph was achieved by being named to the NFL’s Hall of Fame.
Early in 1999, Walter, with his wife Connie beside him told the press that he had been diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis-a condition that would eventually place him on an organ donor list for a new liver. Walter did not use his notoriety to gain that liver and while he avoided the limelight during 1999, it was announced on November 1st of that year that he had passed away.
Any Bears fan will instantly associate the number 34 with Payton. He is remembered for his career on the field and still celebrated for his raising awareness of the importance of organ donation, spurring many of the people of Illinois to become organ donors. To this day, Chicago sports fans may get a little misty eyed as they raise a glass of Old Style to their “sweetness”.
Related articles by Zemanta
- Jeff Pearlman: Remembering Walter Payton (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)