Whether you call him Greatness, Wonderful Walter, or Sweetness, all monikers he’s earned, it’s no doubt that the legendary Walter Payton transformed the windy city into Payton Place, and holds a place in many sports fans’ hearts.
Walter Jerry Payton was the youngest child born to factory workers Peter and Alyne Payton in Columbia, Mississippi on July 25, 1954. In his own words, Walter grew up in “a kid’s paradise,” for as woods extended from one side of his house to the Pearl River, and as several factories were on the other side, this setting provided numerous opportunities for the Payton children to entertain themselves as Walter and his older brother and sister, respectively Eddie and Pamela, engaged in simple activities. Walter and Eddie often explored, hiked, and fished. It also provided the opportunity for mischief, for Walter used his natural running ability to avoid being caught by security guards while playing hide and seek at the nearby factories, inadvertently developing physical skills that would later help him in football. Hyperactive, prankish, and strong willed, as much fun as Walter had playing with his siblings, there are those times when he annoyed them, when the joke was on him, and hence, he further developed as a deft contender, skills he would eventually use in football. “When you’ve got an angry brother and sister chasing you with a broom and a wet towel, well, you learn some good moves,” Walter one said reminiscing of his childhood. To keep her children off the street and out of trouble, especially her boys, during the summer, Alyne would have a pile of topsoil dumped outside the house, and Walter and Eddie would work all summer long to move the pile throughout the yard, little by little. It worked, as did Peter and Alyne instilling a strong Baptist faith in their children and being firm, but fair disciplinarians. To further stay out of trouble and in turn, be focused, Walter was an active member of the Boy Scouts, Little League, and his local church. Walter later recalled the great blessing he and his siblings received with growing up in a stable home. “My parents spent a lot of time with us and made us feel loved and wanted. I didn’t care much about what went on around me, as long as I was in solid at home,” Walter once said. As Peter worked hard manufacturing packs and parachutes for the U.S. government, by 1962, he saved enough money to move his family to a new home that offered all three children their own room.
Their new humble abode was located just one block from John J. Jefferson High School, the segregated school African American children attended. It was at this school that Walter would begin developing into an accomplished football player. In his freshman year, Walter played drums in the marching band, complementing him playing in jazz-rock groups outside of school, sang in the school choir, and participated in sports, but only on the track team as a long jumper. Taking his parents’ principles to heart, Walter became a better than average student, though music took precedence over studies or sports. Enjoying his high school activities beyond the classroom, at home, Walter constantly drummed, tapping out a beat on anything within reach, and would sing or dance instead of doing household chores. He was encouraged to participate on the school football team, but eschewed playing because as his brother Eddie was the senior star running back, Walter didn’t want any competition between the two of them and he didn’t want his mother to worry about both of her sons being hurt. After Eddie graduated, the high school football coach asked Walter to try out for the football team. As long as Walter was allowed to stay in the band, football was a reality and the deal was sealed. As a junior, Walter found instant success as a football player at John J. Jefferson High School. On his first high-school carry, the junior ran 65 yards for a touchdown. It was just a taste of great things to come. John J. Jefferson High merged with all-white Columbia High School in 1969. That year, Walter and his teammates were upset that their head coach had become an assistant, and Walter boycotted some of the spring practices in protest, but returned during the fall season. Walter quickly became the undisputed star of the newly integrated football team. His performance helped ease the local tensions surrounding desegregation. The fire he displayed spread throughout his junior and senior years as he scored in every game as an upperclassman. Walter was named to the all-conference team. As a senior, he led the Dixie Conference in scoring and made the all-state team, leading Columbia to an unexpected 8-2 season. In addition to his football accolades, Walter excelled in long jumping, stretching his long jump record to 22-feet-11-and-1/4, inches and eventually joined the basketball team where he flourished, averaging 18 points per game and lettering in the sport. Amidst all the activities he was involved in at high school, he maintained his better than average academic standing. Walter’s high marks coupled with his sports talent yielded his seamless transition to college. He decided to attend nearby Jackson State University, the same place where his brother Eddie had established himself as a premier football player. Walter soon started alongside Eddie in the team’s backfield. As Eddie graduated to join the National Football League (NFL) after Walter’s freshman year, Walter became Jackson State’s lone star. As a freshman, upon setting foot on the football field to grace the public with his #34 jersey, in 1971, he was a talented starter. By the end of Walter’s sophomore season, he was the nation’s second leading scorer, including having the highest single-game total in college history with 46 points. The following year as a junior, he ran for 1,139 yards, led the country in scoring with 160 points, was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the conference, was named to the All-American team, and was named Black College Player of the Year. Determined to become an even better player, Walter embarked on a new training program with his brother Eddie during the summer after his junior 1973 season. Unlike nostalgic times when Walter was a child who took playing too far, annoyed his siblings, and would run and develop his moves when being chased, the more mature Walter further advanced his running and moves as he now ran alongside his brother as they both developed their physique. Walter and Eddie sprinted up and down the sandbanks and steep levees alongside the Pearl River during the hottest part of the day. These workouts did more than just build up leg strength and endurance; the constantly shifting sand helped develop balance and the ability to better make a cut or abruptly change direction. And throughout his career, Walter made it a habit of conducting similar workouts in comparable settings. This grueling conditioning led to a successful senior football season. Walter was again named to the 1974 All-American team, named College Player of the Year, and he capped his college career by becoming the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) all-time leading scorer with 464 points on 66 touchdowns, five field goals, and 52 extra points. As a senior, Walter made the NCAA Division II All-America team, and was named to the College All-Star team. Throughout Walter’s College career, as a four year starter, in 37 games, Walter had 584 carries for 3,563 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, had 474 yards passing for a total of 4,037 career yards, set nine school records, and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. Still never losing sight of his interest in music and rhythm, he even appeared on the popular television show Soul Train where he and a dance partner placed second in a dance contest. As Walter’s competitive side surfaced, he swore that if he’d had a girl who could’ve danced better, he would have won the contest. But of course, there was no contest to rank Walter on the football field, for he had solidified himself as the best. In fact, Walter was such a stand out person and player that he acquired the nickname “Sweetness” during his college years, a name that stuck with him throughout his career. Having a soft high pitched voice, humble disposition, a sincere demeanor, a devout concern for others, always leading the team in its pre-game prayer, and definitely displaying sweet moves on the football field proved why “Sweetness” was fitting for someone of his ilk. And yet others called him “Sweetness” as an ironic description of his aggressive playing style. So Walter was definitely known as an All-Star in the sport of football. And of course, Walter was an academic All-Star as well, graduating in three-and-a-half years with his bachelor’s degree in special education, and he actually began working towards a master’s degree. But as he began working toward this advanced degree, a higher calling to the windy city beckoned.
The Chicago Bears chose Walter as the 4th pick in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft. The Bears offered him a $126,000 signing bonus, at the time, the highest amount ever paid to anyone from Mississippi. At the time, the Bears were one the NFL’s more storied teams, counting many legendary names among their former players, including Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. But these stars and their glory days were long gone, and the franchise had not had a winning season since 1963. A horde of rabid Chicago rooters sensed that Walter might just be their long awaited savior. Walter instinctively knew that he’d have a great rapport with the people in Chicago. “When I get through with Chicago, they’re going to love me,” he promised upon being drafted. He was immediately compared to the great Gale Sayers, an excellent football player who had terrorized NFL defenses in the 1960s. While Sayers danced around defenders, Walter was more apt to run them over. Walter played aggressive on the field and would rather punish tacklers than let tacklers punish him. So although undoubtedly flattered to the comparison, Walter knew he was his own man who would make a name for himself just as Gale Sayers did in his heyday. “No running back patterns himself after anybody. It’s something that is innate, it’s reflexes and instinct. I’m not Gale Sayers. If the people of Chicago give me some time and are patient, I’ll give them a new Gale Sayers,” Walter once said. And patience was the key word as Walter began his journey with the Bears, for his 1975 rookie season with the Bears began slow, and due to an ankle injury, he missed one game that his coach would not allow him to play in, the only game he missed in his illustrious NFL career. But by the season finale, things began to pick up, for at New Orleans, Walter rushed for 134 yards on 20 carries. By the season’s end, playing in 13 games, Walter finished his rookie season with 679 rushing yards, and 7 touchdowns. But the best was yet to come. Eager to improve his performance, Walter continued to progress forward. During his second 1976 NFL season, playing in 14 games, he became the focal point of the Bears’ offense, carrying the ball 311 times, the most in the league, and led the National Football Conference (NFC) in yards gained with 1,390. By the season’s end, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and his performance helped the Bears finish with 7 victories and 7 losses, their best season in eight years. He made the 1976 Pro Bowl. Also another best that happened to Walter is that summer, specifically on July 7, Walter and his fiancée Connie who also graduated from Jackson State, jumped the broom, and she became a settling influence in his life as they had a happy family comprised of two children.
At training camp in 1977, people noticed a different Walter – specifically that he was withdrawn, silent, moody, and irritable. Once the season began, the reason became crystal clear – Walter had been preparing himself for one of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history. In the season opener, Walter gained 160 yards. His most memorable game of the 1977 NFL season was versus the Minnesota Vikings on November 20 when he rushed for a then record 275 yards on 40 carries while combating the flu, breaking the previous record of 273 yards held by O.J. Simpson. Playing in 14 games, Walter ended the 1977 season leading the NFC with 1,852 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns, and his 5.5 yard per carry was the best of his career. The Bears qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. He made the 1977 Pro Bowl. And at 23 years old, Walter was the youngest player to be voted the league’s MVP. Further accolades came from United Press International (UPI), which designated him its Athlete of the Year. During the mid 1970s, when anyone talked about or made reference to the Chicago Bears, they thought of Walter; in fact, no one could converse about the Bears without bringing up the star player’s name. Walter defined the Bears, for he was the Bears. As Walter played, it was obvious that he had game. Everyone across the nation recognized Walter by his unique stutter step, running on his toes with short, stiff legged strides. Rather than be graceful, he was compact, and preferred running up the middle or off tackle, surprising would-be tacklers with frequent sudden cutbacks and punishing them with a forearm, shoulder, or helmet. Walter was defined by his speed, shiftiness, brute power, and his ability to seize the day, for his motto was “Never Die Easy,” words that he attributed to his college coach Bob Hill. On the field, this meant that Walter refused to deliberately run out of bounds, and always delivered some punishment to his tacklers before being forced off the field or forced down. In life, this signifies that when given an opportunity, it is important to give every action your best because tomorrow is not promised. And after scoring a touchdown, Walter was notorious for handing the football to a teammate for a triumphant spike, to one of the Bears’ offensive lineman who blocked for him. The reason he did this was because he wanted to give credit where credit was due. “Maybe it’s all right to brag if you’re Billie Jean King or Muhammad Ali. But I’m in a team sport. It takes ten more guys, and I don’t see why I should rip all the glory,” Walter once said to explain his humbleness following making a touchdown. Before the 1978 season begun, Walter signed contracts for the next three seasons reflecting his superstar status – $400,000 for 1978, $425,000 for 1979, and $450,000 plus incentive bonuses for 1980. Clearly the Bears were expecting big things from him and better days for the team. During the 1978 season, under new coach Neill Armstrong, the Bears finished with a 7-9 record despite Walter’s 1,395 yards, the most in the NFC, 11 touchdowns, and 50 pass receptions in 16 games played, and he made the Pro Bowl. As the 1979 season arrived, Walter played in all 16 games and had a painful pinched nerve in his shoulder, but still earned 14 touchdowns and amassed 1,610 rushing yards, again leading the NFC. He made his fourth Pro Bowl appearance. Although they were eliminated in the first round, the Bears made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. In 1980, Walter earned 6 touchdowns and gained 1,460 yards for an unprecedented fifth consecutive NFC rushing title, but the Bears fell to a 7-9 record. Walter still made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. As 1981 surfaced, the Bears continued their mediocre play, finishing 6-10. Walter, injured most of the season with cracked ribs and a sore shoulder, made 6 touchdowns and only 1,222 yards, and although he failed to win the NFC rushing title or make the Pro Bowl, he became the first player in NFL history to run for at least 1,000 yards six years in a row. The Bears were not yet truly performing up to par and because life on the field some days was not necessarily fun, Walter helped ease tensions, especially in the locker room by resurrecting his days of pulling pranks, becoming the club’s biggest joker and purveyor of practical jokes. Some pranks Walter was notorious for included 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, untying referees’ shoelaces during pileups, and repeatedly calling a teammate’s wife in a high-pitched voice pretending to be a girlfriend. Perhaps this sweet spirit Walter exuded was the underlying fuel to the charismatic Bears that would take the field a few years down the road.
As the Bears struggled to assemble consecutive winning seasons as they landed only two playoff berths since Walter’s arrival, Bears’ management was prompted to replace head coach Neill Armstrong. As it was argued that Walter was the best player on a losing team, he was credited to being the best contributor on a winning team with the arrival of Mike Ditka as Chicago’s new head coach in 1982. And the Bears realized Walter’s worth and signed him to a three-year contract worth $2 million. 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 players 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 the Bears’ general manager began assembling a supporting cast to ensure Walter’s success. The 1982 season was tarnished by a player strike, and playing in 9 games, Walter earned 1 touchdown, 596 rushing yards, and the Bears finished with a 3-6 record. During the 1983 season, playing in 16 games, Walter ran for 1,421 yards and caught 53 passes for 607 yards, personally accounting for 36% of the Bears’ total yardage as they finished 8-8. Walter also made the Pro Bowl. Undoubtedly, Walter suffered all the bumps and bruises that all pro players experience, but he never let it bother him. When he had arthroscopic surgery on both knees following the 1983 season, Walter referred to it merely as “my 11,000-yard checkup.” Also following the 1983 season, Walter renegotiated his contract and received $240,000 a year for life, making him the highest-paid player in NFL history. An accolade that Walter really wanted to add to his life accomplishments was to play in and undoubtedly win a Super Bowl Championship. The 1984 Bears’ team showed tremendous promise, for their defense was strong and the offense line was able to open big holes for Walter and other running backs, while effectively blocking for their quarterback. In 16 games, Walter dominated the NFC Central with 1,684 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, and caught 45 passes to set a new Bears career receiving record. As the Bears finished with a 10-6 record, Walter made the Pro Bowl. But the complete season was highlighted by Walter’s performance on October 7, 1984. With his family in attendance, Walter broke Jim Brown’s 19-year NFL career rushing record of 12,312 yards with 16,726 rushing yards. In the season’s sixth game early in the third quarter on a toss left, Walter broke the record. Following a few celebratory high fives, after the game, Walter dedicated his achievement to many late athletes who inspired him and who didn’t have the chance to achieve their goals, such as Brian Piccolo, Willie Galimore, David Overstreet, and Joe Delaney. And at a post-game press conference, even then President Reagan gave Walter his props. Later after the regular season, the Bears won their first postseason 23-19 in the divisional playoffs versus the Washington Redskins where Walter ran for 104 yards, threw a 19-yard touchdown pass, and blocked with such ferocity that he knocked a defensive back out of the game. But despite Walter’s 92 yards rushing and three pass receptions, the following week, the Bears were shut out by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game. With the loss, the television cameras showed Walter sitting dejectedly on the bench and he voiced his sorrow to the press. Walter knew his team had come so far and that tomorrow is promised to no one, and he wondered if he’d ever get his shot again at the elusive Super Bowl ring. Walter was despondent, and called this loss “the hardest thing I ever had to deal with.” But greater days were ahead. Walter and his teammates would have their revenge in 1985. Playing in 16 games, Walter finished the 1985 regular season with 9 touchdowns and 1,551 rushing yards. Walter also made the Pro Bowl. Running up a 15-1 record with a devastating defense and a powerful offense, the Bears blasted through the regular season, strutting their superiority with an arrogant attitude and a music video that Walter starred in entitled, “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” The recording went gold. After winning its two playoff games at home, the Bears earned the right to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. On January 26, 1986, the Chicago Bears crushed the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX with a score of 46-10. The victory was bittersweet for Walter, for despite Chicago rushing for 5 touchdowns, Walter was not given the ball to score, as New England scripted their entire game plan to stop him. Coach Ditka later called not getting Walter into the end zone in football’s biggest game his greatest career regret. But he did keep his word that his team would go to the Super Bowl. When the air cleared, the entire Chicago Bears team was indeed excited for the victory, and some fans across the nation read in the newspaper about Wonderful Walter, and others viewed on television how Greatness had reached the zenith of his career with the Super Bowl win.
During the 1986 season, playing in 16 games, Walter finished with 8 touchdowns, 37 pass receptions, and 1,333 rushing yards, and he also made the Pro Bowl. The Bears showed every sign of repeating champions, but they stumbled in the playoffs, losing 13-27 to the Washington Redskins. At the end of the 1986 season, Walter announced that he would retire after completing the 1987 NFL season. The 1987 season was marred by another player strike. Eventually playing resumed and although the Bears and Walter played well enough to win 11 of their 15 games, they again lost to the Redskins in the playoffs. Playing in 12 games, Walter finished the 1987 season with 4 touchdowns and 533 rushing yards, and was given a tearful sendoff in his last game at Soldier Field. He decided to retire while at the top of his game, and Walter left behind 26 Chicago Bears team records and several NFL records: finishing with 3,838 rushes, 16,726 yards rushing, 21,736 running and receiving yards, 110 rushing touchdowns, ten 1,000-yard seasons, and seventy-seven 100-yard games of any running back in history.
Following retiring from the NFL, Walter engaged in many ventures. Known for playing practical jokes, he received the chance to truly make people laugh. In 1987, Walter appeared on the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live with fellow football player Joe Montana. In 1988, Walter devoted a great deal of time to various charities in the Chicago area and joined the Chicago Bears Board of Directors. He later formed a CART racing team with partner Dale Coyne and survived a spectator collision while racing at Elkhart Lane in 1993. The year 1993, specifically on July 31, was also when Walter was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His son Jarrett made the presentation, telling the crowd: “Not only is my dad an exceptional athlete…he’s my biggest role model and best friend. We do a lot of things together…I’m sure my sister will endorse this statement – we have a super dad.” A few years later, this super dad and his business partners bought a Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad roundhouse in Aurora, Illinois and opened up “Walter Payton’s Roadhouse,” featuring a restaurant, brewpub, banquet and meeting facility, and a museum. The property received an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the beers brewed at the Roadhouse received numerous awards. Walter was also heavily involved with the Walter Payton Foundation, a children’s charity founded by the Chicago Bears. In 1996, Walter was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. So even though retired, Walter continued to have a fulfilling life off the football field and spent more time with his family as he and his wife began to entertain college scholarship offers for their son and were primed to face the public to announce the latest happenings with their son.
Sadly, instead of making a happy announcement on February 2, 1999, addressing his extreme weight loss and his jaundice eye condition, Walter tearfully faced the public to announce that he had been diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a disease that causes ducts that remove bile from the liver to become blocked and when bile backs up, it permanently damages the liver. Walter told the press that in order to save his life, he needed a liver transplant. A God fearing Christian man with class, he also tearfully said to his supporters and others, “To the people that really care about me, just continue to pray. And to those who are going to say what they want to say, may God be with you also.” In May of 1999, Walter received another devastating blow when he learned that he had bile duct cancer, making him ineligible for a liver transplant. 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. Although his fate was sealed and he accepted it with temperance, Walter faced the future with charismatic courage and dignity. In April 1999, at Wrigley Field, Walter threw the game’s ceremonial pitch at the Cubs game, his last public appearance. And even while ill, he still continued to enjoy whatever time he had, as he continued with his pranks, for in his last week, he purposely sent former Bears running back Mike Suhey to the wrong address on a trip to former Bears Mike Singletary’s house, and then had him hide a hamburger and malt in Singletary’s garage. And in the last few weeks of his life, author Don Yaeger worked with Walter to create his autobiography, Never Die Easy, an effort to help dismiss the stereotype that athletes in general and more specifically, that black athletes do not work hard to get their diplomas and that they don’t learn anything. On November 1, 1999, 45-year-old Walter died from complications that arose from his illness. All of Chicago, the place where Walter declared he would be loved by, the place he transformed into Payton Place, went into full scale mourning that Monday evening, a grieving that lasted the entire week. Millions, not only in the windy city, but also all over the country, did shed tears. Thousands of fans and the 1999 Chicago Bears team showed up wearing #34 patches on their jerseys 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 then Bears player Bryan Robinson. Walter may actually have pulled some strings from Heaven by arranging for the miracle finish.
Following Walter’s passing, a trove of great events happened to keep his legacy alive. In 1999, Sporting News ranked Walter #8 on the list of the 100 greatest NFL players of all time. Since Walter’s illness increased public awareness of the need for organ donations, donations in Illinois skyrocketed, and the regional organ bank of Illinois was overwhelmed with calls. The city of Chicago created a special city sticker that featured Walter. The profits from the sales of these stickers coupled with the special license plate created by the State of Illinois are given to support organ-donor programs across the state. Illinois named a high school, the Walter Payton College Prep in Walter’s honor. Jackson State University, Walter’s alma mater, opened the Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center in 2006. In 2007, the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center opened the Walter Payton Liver Center. Nickol Knoll Hill, an old landfill site turned Golf course in Arlington, Heights, Illinois was renamed ‘Payton’s Hill,’ and in addition to pictures and memorabilia of Walter that covers the walls of the golf course clubhouse, there are two plaques on the hill to remind visitors of the hill that Walter used to train in the 1970s and 1980s. Two athletic awards are named after Walter. The NCAA gives an annual “Walter Payton Award” to the best offensive player from a Division I-AA football team, and hands out the “Walter Payton Man of the Year” award for player achievements in community service during a particular season. And in addition to Payton’s Roadhouse drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the Aurora, Illinois site, in 2002, the family established the Walter Payton Cancer Fund.
Walter Jerry Payton’s timeline was from 1954-1999. Whether you call him Greatness, Wonderful Walter, Sweetness, or simply by his birth name Walter, within his dash, he wanted his legacy to shine. “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 once said. And from the football field and beyond, what Walter delivered between his dash was certainly his best.