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Remembering the Greatness of Walter “Sweetness” Payton

Posted on July 25, 2011 by Dean Hybl

He didn't have a cape, but Walter Payton could leap over tall NFL players in a single bound.

The images of him flying through the air or high stepping across the end zone are so ingrained in the memories of football fans who had the pleasure of watching his amazing talents that it is hard to believe that it has been 24 years since Walter Payton completed his NFL career and nearly a dozen years since his premature passing.

On what would have been Payton’s 57th birthday (he was born on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi), we remember the greatness of a football player who was simply sweet.

I know you hear it all the time, but God definitely broke the mold when he created Walter Payton.

Others are recognized as maybe being better NFL players, but I just don’t know that there was ever a better combination of desire, gracefulness, power and athleticism packed into a 5-foot-10 frame than the man they called “Sweetness.”

By all accounts, Payton never should have been as great as he was.

Given his physical stature, initial preference for playing the drums over playing football and that he played his college football at tiny Jackson State it is really quite amazing that Payton went on to achieve such lofty status.

However, heart and desire cannot be measured at a scouting combine and there is no question that Payton had those required tools in spades.

Payton’s career numbers: 16,726 rushing yards (second all-time), 21,264 yards from scrimmage (3rd), 125 touchdowns (11th) are beyond reproach, but his career was about so much more than mere statistics.

For more than a decade, Payton was the silent assassin of the NFL. His soft voice and quiet demeanor off the field masked his killer instinct on the field.

They also masked his reputation as a locker room prankster and cut-up.

Payton played his college football at little Jackson State, but it didn't keep him from being selected as the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL draft.

Payton actually was first introduced to the world when he and a girlfriend competed in a dance contest (they finished second overall) on the popular television show of the early 1970s Soul Train.

When he arrived in Chicago as the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, there were a lot of questions as to whether this little running back from a small school could handle the rigors of the NFL.

The critics looked like they might be right when Payton rushed for zero yards on eight carries in his first NFL game. However, by the end of the season he had become a starter and rushed for 134 yards against New Orleans in the final game of the season.

Payton shattered any doubt about whether he belonged during his second season as finished behind only O.J. Simpson with 1,390 rushing yards.

The following season he rushed for 1,852 yards to lead the NFL. Ultimately, he ranked among the top 10 rushers in the NFL rushers for 11 straight years and between 1976 and 1986 passed 1,000 yards in every season except the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.

But more than anything else on the football field, Walter Payton was a winner. He would do whatever it took for his team to be successful.

Whether it be blocking, taking snaps at quarterback or catching passes, Payton would do whatever was needed to help his team win.

After a decade of being the bright light on an inconsistent team, Payton finally got the chance to play for a winner in his final years with the Bears.

Though it is a shame that he didn’t get to participate in the scoring onslaught against the New England Patriots, Payton was just pleased to finally have a Super Bowl Championship.

Fittingly, his career ended with Payton giving it everything he had in a playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins in January 1988. He rushed for 85 yards and caught passes for another 20 in the loss.

After retirement, Payton remained engaged in a wide variety of activities.

He was part of a group that attempted to bring the NFL back to St. Louis in 1995 and was co-owner of a team on the CART IndyCar World Series.

The revelation in February 1999 that he suffered from a rare liver ailment surprised many football fans that believed Payton to be invincible.

Though he ultimately lost his battle, Payton was as gracious near the end as he was throughout his career. He served as an advocate for organ transplants and even declined to receive a liver transplant because of the severity of his condition and reluctance to take away a chance at life from someone else.

Payton was truly one of a kind and an NFL great that will never be forgotten.

In remembrance of Payton’s amazing career, we have also chosen several highlight clips that reflect his true greatness.

Walter Payton Highlights:

Payton’s Great Runs:

Breaking Jim Brown’s Rushing Record:


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