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Sports Articles: Sporting Icons 2: Walter Payton - American Football

Sporting Icons 2: Walter Payton - American Football

Walter Payton 'Sweetness'


Despite claiming during his life to be born a year later, Walter Jerry Payton was born on 25th July 1953 in Colombia, Mississippi. He was the youngest and most shy of Peter/Edward and Alyne Payton's three children in an era of strict racial segregation. Both parents worked at a factory producing parachutes called Pioneer Recovery Systems and they would work different shifts to ensure someone was always home to look after the kids. The family had two gardens, a small vegetable patch next to their house and a five-acre plot outside town. His father also did odd jobs to earn extra money for the family and played baseball at semi-pro level. Sadly his father died in jail just a couple of hours after being wrongfully accused of driving under the influence due to a stroke that presented similar symptoms.

After her husband passed away, Alyne would find them jobs to do to keep them busy and out of trouble, particularly the two boys, Walter and Eddie. During the summer she would arrange to have a large pile of topsoil dumped outside the house which the two boys would then have to spend most of their summer working to spread it accross the yard. They had just one wheelbarrow and shovel between them and the summer rains often turned everything to mud. Walter hated the work: "I was never so happy as when I started Little League baseball when I was 10. That got me from hauling all that dirt." But he does credit it with developing his muscles and taught him to overcome tough obstacles and keep going.

Walter, as well as playing Little League, was also an active member of the Boy Scouts and his local church and played the drums. As he grew older he joined the marching band of his high school and played drums in jazz-rock groups outside of school. He was also a talented all-round athlete who made the track team at school as a long jumper. Football, of the American variety, he did not play, in large part to avoid competing with older brother Eddie, who was the star of the school's football team. Eddie later went on to play five seasons in the NFL.

With his star player gone, the school's coach asked little brother Walter to try out for the team. Walter agreed on the proviso that he could continue playing in the band. It was an immediate success, with Walter's very first carry as a running back being a 65 yard touchdown! Walter was a junior but not particularly large, however he did have the speed and strength to stand out.

That year saw Walter's black school integrated with neighbouring white school Colombia High and a number of players, including Walter himself, boycotted some of the spring practice sessions in protest that their coach from Jefferson, Charles L Boston, was reduced to the role of an assistant. Colombia's facilities and equipment, as was usually the case with white schools at the time, were far superior to the Jefferson set up, but Jefferson had the better players. "Growing up we just accepted that blacks and whites attended separate schools. It was just the way it was....It wasn't really something you thought about as a kid. So when we heard that they were going to integrated the high schools it wasn't a big social victory, just a new thing," Payton later said.

"The one thing I have always found about different races is everyone likes to laugh. It is universal. Comedy can really bring people together, so that is what I tried to do." - Walter Payton.

Initially there was some tensions between the two groups of kids, but Payton helped defuse a lot of the confrontations with his humour, though it did not start well for him. He had never worn the pads and proper uniform and on his first practice he panicked and scored a touchdown in the wrong end when facing his much bigger teammates. He soon got over his fear of them and quickly became the team's star, with his exceptional performances leading Colombia to an unexpected 8-2 season. He was chosen for Mississippi's all-state team with coach Charles L Boston remembering: "I'm not saying I knew back then he was going to be as great as he turned out, but I knew he was going to be something real special, and I'd been right before."

"You didn't have to do much; just snap the ball, and it would be handed off to Walter, and then you could just stand around and watch him run." - Colombia school teammate Quin Breland.

Payton scored in every single one of his junior and senior games and was named to the all-conference team both years, leading the Little Dixie Conference in scoring in his senior year. But it was not just American football that he excelled at, he had great balance and could walk long distances on his hands, even turning round corners or going up stairs on them. On top of that he averaged 18 points a game for the school's basketball team, leapt almost 23 feet in the long jump and played baseball. He still continued to drum in the school's band as well. The local press had nicknamed him 'Spiderman' in their many reports on his progress.

Walter 'Spiderman' Payton The High School Track Star

2nd April 1971 set a new record for the Hazlehurst Relays track meet with a long jump of 20' 7" to take his first win of the season.
13th April 1971 set a new record at the Little Dixie Track Meet in Hazlehurst, winning the long jump with a leap of 22' 11¼".
20 April 1971 won the District VII Preliminary Track Meet in Brookhaven.
1 May 1971 came second in South Mississippi Track Meet in Gulfport.
8 May 1971 won the State Track Meet at Hinds Junior College with a jump of 22' 3".

He even devised his own, incredibly tough, offseason training camp, inviting others to join him in his training programme but few could cope with it. By the time the pre-season training camp came around, it felt like a relaxing holiday to him by comparison to his own workouts. He continued the workouts throughout his professional career.

He would run to and from practice every day from home, a distance of over a mile, wearing old army boots and running through the woods dodging around trees like they were defenders. When he put his boots (or cleats in American football parlance), they seemed featherlight compared to the old army boots.

He would also lift weights with his brother Eddie's guidance, at a time when high school athletes rarely used weights.

"When the rest of us were getting high school-type training, he was getting college-type training. And he was keeping it to himself. He got really big and strong." - teammate Edward Moses.

"His regimen was much harder than any NFL strength coach's regimen. He had a regimen that defied what the US Marines were doing." - Mike Ditka.

Despite being one of Mississipi's best running back prospects, none of the Southeastern Conference colleges sent an invitation to join them. Initially he decided to go to Kansas State University, but then decided to join his brother Eddie at the historically black Jackson State University (MS). There he studied education with an emphasis on working with the deaf, an early sign of his interest in helping others. It is often thought that he got his nickname while at Jackson after eluding a tackle in practice and shouting back over his shoulder to him: "Your sweetness is your weakness!" But there is no certainty that it did come from that. He did, however, show some sweet dance moves there, becoming a finalist in the national 'Soul Train' dance contest while a freshman, performing the "Cock Walk", a dance move of his own invention.

In his first year at Jackson State playing for the Tigers, the 1971 season, he rushed for 651 yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry and scoring 5 touchdowns. He also assisted in kicking duties, making an extra 13 points and 3 field goals!

He stepped up a level in the 1972 season, setting a then-record single-game scoring record for the Southwestern Athletic COnference by rushing for 7 touchdowns (with runs of 6, 8, 2, 3, 1, 2 and 31 yards) and two 2-point conversions to notch 46 points in a 72-0 victory over Lane College. He also set a school record in the same game with 279 rushing yards. In total that season he rushed for 781 yards and 15 touchdowns and kicked an extra 21 points.

Payton then spent the 1973 season showing that he could be even better, setting a school record of 24 rushing touchdowns and was named Black College Player of the Year. He rushed for 1,139 yards in total, which included a September touchdown, extra point and field goal as Jackson beat Nebraska 17-0. His success was such that Mississippi governor Bill Waller proclaimed 20 October "Walter Payton and Tiger Day" in tribute to him and his team ahead of their game against Grambling State University. Dick Young was so impressed by what he saw that he wrote in The Sporting News that Payton would become the first player from a traditionally black college to win the Heisman Trophy, despite playing for a small school.

"He was addicted to laughter. When he was happy, all he wanted to do was laugh and laugh. He had many flaws. But Walter had a genuine desire to make people happy." - Kim Tucker former executive director of the Walter Payton Foundation.

Young was wrong though as, despite winning Black College Player of the Year again in 1974, and being selected as an All-American, and becoming the leading scorer in NCAA history, Payton finished just 4th in voting for the Heisman, despite claiming his age to be a year younger to help his case to win the award. Most believe he would have won if he played for a more well known school. He finished the 1974 season with 1,029 yards and 19 touchdowns to take his college career to a total of 3,600 rushing yards, 63 touchdowns, 53 extra points made and 5 field goals.

In 1975 he graduated and entered the NFL draft. The Dallas Cowboys very nearly took him 2nd overall, but in the end opted for Randy White and instead he was chosen 4th overall by the Chicago Bears, the first running back selected in that year's draft. He was given #21 initially but it was switched to #34 before the season began. His hometown of Colombia held a Walter Payton day in his honour in April where he was given the key to the city by the mayor and a copy of the bible by his church.

The Bears signed him to the biggest rookie contract in their history by signing him to a 3-year deal worth at least $150,000 a year, but they were not a good team at this time. They had been in a slump since the retirement of Gale Sayers in 1972 and were looking for someone new to lead them out of that slump. A lot to put on the shoulders of a young rookie player fresh out of college and it looked like it might be too much for him when, in his first game, he was held to zero net rushing yards on 8 attempts against Baltimore Colts. It did get better as the season went on, though he was to miss the one and only game of his entire professional career that season when the coach left him out. The final game of the season was his best that year, with 134 rushing yards against New Orleans Saints on 20 carries. He finished his first professional season with just 679 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he did lead the league in yards per kickoff return.

"When I see him out there, it gives me goose bumps. Not the speediest, not the quickest, but he was [always] throwing his body at somebody. I think God looked down and said, 'Walter, you're going to play for 13 years, and you're going to miss one game. And they're going to beat you up and knock you down, and you're still going to get up and play." - Gale Sayers.

1976 was his breakout year, as well as the year he married Connie Norwood. He rushed for 1,390 yards and scored 13 touchdowns as well as completing a pass for 54 yards and a touchdown. He narrowly missed out on the NFL rushing title to OJ Simpson of the Buffalo Bills after being sidelined in the 3rd quarter of a game against the Denver Broncos with an ankle knock.

Following that season, he was voted into the 1977 Pro Bowl, where he was MVP. He then went on to have an even better season which included being Associated Press's National Football League Most Valuable Player, the youngest to win it. Payton was still just 23. That season he rushed for 1,852 yards and scored 16 touchdowns to become the league's leading scorer. It also included a flu game of his own, similar to the one fellow Chicago sporting star Michael Jordan is so famous for. Going into a game against Minnesota Vikings, Payton was suffering with intense flu and running a fever of 101-degrees. Despite that, he rushed for a then-record 275 yards, breaking OJ Simpson's mark of 273 yards. That included a run of 58 yards and catching a pass for a further 6 yards. That record was not beaten until 2000. He also led the Bears to their first postseason berth in 14 years. It is little wonder he was named NFL Man of the Year.

1980 was another landmark year for Payton, not only was his salary increased to make him the highest paid player in the entire NFL at $475,000, but his first child, Jarrett, was born. Jarrett later went on to become a running back in the NFL himself, with the Tennessee Titans, though he had nowhere near the success of his father. He wore the number 34 himself while at the University of Miami and even got married on the 4th March (3/4) to honour his father.

The Bears were, despite Payton's greatness, still nowhere near the best in the NFL and so ahead of the 1982 season head coach Neill Armstrong was replaced by Mike Ditka for a season which was to be strike-shortened. In Ditka's first speech to the players he stated that his team would be going to the Super Bowl. However it was not an immediate improvement and the first season record saw them achieve just 3 wins and losing 6 times.

The following season saw a big improvement and an 8-8 record for the Bears, with Payton rushing over 1,400 yards. He did, however, require what he called an 11,000 yard checkup with arthroscopic surgery on both knees. Payton also opened his first nightclub, Studebakers in Schaumburg, as he began to plan for his future after retirement.

Another step forward was taken in the 1984 season, with the Bears achieving a 10-6 record and Payton again rushing over 1,400 yards. In September he passed Franco Harris as the active leader in career rushing years. October he broke Jim Brown's career rushing record of 12,312 yards with a six-yard sweep. The game was held up for 3 minutes while he was surrounded by his teammates and photographers. He even played one game as an emergency quarterback and, during the team's first postseason win since 1963 he threw a touchdown pass to tight end Pat Dunsmore!

1985 was his finest season as he led Chicago to the Super Bowl with a 15-1 record in the regular season and over 1,500 rushing yards. With the emergence of quarterback Jim McMahon, the Bears had the second best offence in the NFL. Super Bowl XX was won 46-10 though Payton was unable to score a touchdown in the game, in fact the entire postseason, with Payton crowded out by 2 or 3 defenders on every play according to McMahon.

It was an after the Lord Mayor's show kind of season following that, with Payton rushing for 1,333 yards and the Bears winning NFC Central but losing to Washington Redskins in the divisional round. After that defeat, Payton announced that the next season would be his final one. Payton continued to look to his future, even expressing an interest in buying an NFL franchise based in the UK.

Ahead of the 1987 season, he signed a 1-year, $1m contract with the Bears. His final season was a disappointing one for him personally, with rushing duties split with his successor Neal Anderson, he managed just 533 yards, the worst in his NFL career, and 4 touchdowns. It was off the field that he made most of his headlines in 1987, though not everything was good this time around as Payton accidentally shot a manager of a nightclub he owned. He was buying a collector's piece, a fully registered weapon, that he did not realise was loaded as it was handed to him and it went off hitting Elmer Ray Hutson Jr in the knee.

In the main though, it was a send-off year to remember, with awards such as the Order of Lincoln being awarded to him by the governor of Illinois. He was inducted as a laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois as well as being a co-host of an episode of Saturday Night Live with Joe Montana. Along with that, he appeared in a charity TV special The Grand Knockout Tournament, which was organised by the UK's Prince Edward. On the 17th December the inaugural Walter Payton Award is given to Kenny Gamble of Colgate University. The award is given to the best offensive player from a Division I FCS (formerly Division I-AA) football team. 3 days later he played his final regular-season game and his no. 34 jersey is retired by the Bears.

His final ever NFL game was on 10 January 1988 as the Bears once more lost to the Redskins in the divisional round of the playoffs. He retired with 16,726 rushing yards, an NFL record, and 110 touchdowns scored. He also caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was the record holder for receptions by a running back and still holds the career record of 8 touchdown passes for a running back.

"It's not about money. It's not about statistics. It's about the romance kindled by playing the game the way it was supposed to be played." - Walter Payton.

On his retirement he was given the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement, but he did not enjoy retirement at all. Away from the spotlight he struggled badly with depression, often talking about committing suicide. His body was wracked with pain constantly from the pounding it had taken during his playing career and he had used large amounts of pills and liquids to deal with the injuries. After retirement he continued to take them and became addicted to painkillers. One biographer, Jeff Pearlman, claimed in "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" that Payton had regularly used nitrous oxide during his playing career and after retirement he had large tanks in his garage which he used to keep a gas-filled balloon in hand most of the day to take hits from. He did join the Bears' Board of Directors following retirement, but it was not enough to bring back the rush that he had enjoyed from playing.

One thing that did give him a purpose in life was making others happy. All through his life Payton had shown that he genuinely cared about others, doing things such as inviting a sick child up to first class while on a flight. There he told him that he would come through the illness and, as the boy burst into tears, Payton told him, "You're a hero. Just know that - you're a hero." This genuine desire to see others happy and want to help saw him launch the Walter Payton Foundation in 1989 to help abused and neglected children.

In 1990 he sought to become the first African-American owner of an NFL team as he joined a large group of investors looking to bring an NFL expansion team to St Louis, Missouri. While the NFL was very keen on adding a team in that location, the group itself descended into bickering with each other and so the franchises instead when to Charlotte, North Carolina (Carolina Panthers) and Jacksonville, Florida (Jacksonville Jaguars).

He also loved motor racing and became a co-owner of a CART IndyCar World Series team, as well as driving in several Trans-Am Series events. In 1993 during a race at Road America his car overturned and he suffered burns but luckily no serious injuries.

1993 also saw him elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. The Football Hall of Fame ceremony was extremely awkward for him personally as he had been living apart from his wife since retirement, though it had never been made public. He had been dating another woman for around 5 years at this stage and both her and his wife attended the ceremony. His speech to the gathering also talked about embarrassment, but that was because Payton was giving the credit to his entire team for his accomplishments as a player: "Football is a team game and it takes everyone on the team to make a product....there were teammates that threw blocks and caught passes and talked to them when they were down." He stated that Hall of Famers accepted the nomination with a great deal of embarrassment because they were being given accolades that should be shared. As well as making it into the Hall of Fame, he was chosen in the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994. He also made an appearance in the World Wrestling Federation's SummerSlam that year, working in the corner of Razor Ramon.

"Personal accomplishments don't mean much when you don't win." - Walter Payton.

It was not all wine and roses though as he unexpectedly served divorce papers to his wife requesting joint custody of the children. The divorce was never officially ratified but the pair mostly lived apart from then on.

Walter continued to invest in property, buying, along with several partners, a railway roundhouse in Aurora, Illinois. It was named "Walter Payton's Roundhouse" and housed a restaurant, brewery, banquet and meeting facility and a museum.

The asteroid 85386 Payton was named in his honour in 1996 after being discovered by the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Observatory and he was also elected into the College Football Hall of Fame. But in July 1998 he found himself struggling with fatigue, though it took him a while before he told anyone of the issue.

A few months later in January, he attended Jarrett, his son's, press conference called to announce his decision to attend University of Miami, with the intention of playing tailback and wide receiver for the Hurricanes. Walter said that, "It'll be great to get him out of the house, he eats everything." Unfortunately for Jarrett no one was talking about him. All anyone noticed was Walter's weight loss and rumours swirled regarding his health. Walter tried to quell the rumours by claiming he was in training to run a marathon, but it did little to stem the tide and 3 days later he admitted that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis. Walter said: "Am I scared? Hell yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be scared? But it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands. I'm looking at it as a sprained ankle or a twisted knee. I have to stay positive. Nobody else can make me stay positive. I have to do that. Then whatever happens, happens. If in two years something happens and I get a transplant and my body accepts it and I go on, that's fine. And if in two years I don't, then that's the way life was meant to be for me."

The only possible cure was a liver transplant, but Walter developed bile duct cancer, which ended his chances of a transplant as the drugs needed to keep the body from rejecting it would make tumours grow faster. Despite being unable to have a transplant himself, Walter spent his final months alive advocating for organ transplants, making numerous TV appearances to urge people to donate organs. His illness progressed much faster than expected and he made his final ever public appearance on 12th April 1999 alongside Mike Ditka. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game but even something so small cost him and he had to cancel a planned appearance for the following day due to fatigue. Walter spent his last weeks working with author Don Yaeger to create his autobiography before the cancer took him on 1 November 1999. He was just 46 years old.

"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.'" - Walter Payton

In the week after his death, the NFL held special ceremonies in each game to commemorate his career. The Bears wore special #34 patches on their jerseys for the season. The city of Chicago created a special city sticker featuring Payton and Illinois created a special license plate, the profits from the sale of both goes to organ-donor programs across the state. The city of Chicago inserted organ donation requests into city vehicle registrations mailings in early 2000, in response to the loss of Walter. By August 13,000 had signed up. They also named a new high school Walter Payton College Prep in his honour.

His family continued to use his legacy to benefit others, as Payton would have wanted, setting up the Walter Payton Cancer Fund in 2002. In September 2007 the Walter Payton Liver Center was opened at the University of Illinois Medical Center following a generous donation from the family. Walter has also been posthumously inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame in the 2010 inaugural class.

"All people, regardless of whether they're athletes or not, should treat people the way they want to be treated." - Walter Payton.

There are many that believe he was the greatest player in NFL history, including by John Madden who said of Walter: "Walter Payton was the greatest. If you wanted yards, you'd want Walter Payton. Who do you want to block? Walter Payton. If you wanted someone to catch, Walter Payton." But his legacy is probably mostly being remembered for hard work, a desire to never give an opponent an easy ride, caring about others and practical jokes. He created the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation that is still working to this day doing things such as appeals for organ donations. It continues to run a program that Walter himself organised to donate toys to underprivileged children across the Chicago area each Christmas.

His teammates remember his jokes, a favourite being to rush back early at the end of practice when the snow had been falling and relax in a hot bath while the rest of the team were locked outside. He also liked to take over the team's phone switchboard and answer the organisation's phone calls. He would often phone teammate Matt Suhey's wife using a high-pitched voice and pretending to be Suhey's girlfriend. Another favourite was to undo referees shoelaces while on the ground after being tackled.

The jokes and foundation work never took away from his job though. Once Payton got out there on the field he played by the motto 'Never Die Easy', which was also the title of his posthumously published autobiography. Walter saw that as meaning it was his job to make the game as difficult as possible for his opponents, refusing to deliberately run out of bounds so that he could instead deliver some punishment to his tacklers as they tried to force him off or down. He reintroduced the practice of stiff-arming tacklers, something that had gone out of favour in the 1970s for running backs.

"If I'm going to get hit, why let the guy who's going to hit me get the easiest and best shot? I explode into the guy who's trying to tackle me." - Walter Payton.

Walter liked to use a "stutter-step", a high-stepping, irregularly paced run during long runs. He said it forced defenders to commit to a pursuit angle based upon whether they thought he was going to accelerate or cut after the stutter-step. That gave him the chance to see what they committed to and do the opposite. Payton used his skill as a long jumper to enable him to leap over opponents and once even landed on his head in the end zone to get a touchdown against Buffalo Bills. Despite his larger than life personality Walter was not a fan of touchdown celebrations, which were growing in popularity at the time. He usually just handed the ball to a teammate or official after scoring.

Walter Payton continues to inspire players and have places and awards named in his honour to this day. The NFL give out a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for player achievements in community service throughout a season. Despite being arguably the greatest player of all time, it is probably more arguable that his legacy is more known for being a great person. Payton's former coach Mike Ditka describes Walter as the greatest player he had ever seen but that he was even greater as a human being. Even his death could not stop him inspiring others, with organ donations in the USA benefitting hugely ever since. Even so, his record stands comparable to anyone. That despite playing his first 3 over only 14 games and twice having seasons cut short by strikes, which cost him a further 11 games. Because of that, he played 191 times in his 13 years, while Emmitt Smith, who later broke his rushing yards total record, played 208 games in his first 13 seasons.

"The night before the game, I guess they'd have to kidnap me." - Walter Payton when asked how defences could stop him.

Career Stats

Total NFL games: 191
Seasons: 13
100-yard games: 77
Career receptions: 492
Rushing yards: 16,726
Total Touchdowns: 125
Pro Bowls: 9
All-Pro: 7
All-NFC: 7
NFL Offensive Player of the Year: 2

Won NFL kickoff return championship in his rookie season.
NFC top scorer with 96 points in 1977.
Won NFC rushing title for 5 years in a row between 1976 and 1980.
NFL's MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1977 and 1985.
NFC MVP in 1977.


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Written by Tris Burke October 19 2023 04:54:41