Walter Payton was the true definition of greatness. On the field and off, the legendary Chicago Bears running back affectionately known as “Sweetness” epitomized class, which is the reason the NFL Man of the Year Trophy now bears his name.
Born in Columbia, Mississippi, it took Walter Payton a little time to take to football. He was a good athlete but chose not to join the football team in high school until his older brother Eddie, who later played five seasons of his own in the NFL, was off the team as he didn’t want to compete with him.
Payton finally joined the team as a junior and was an instant sensation. In his two years at Columbia High, he scored in every single game in which he played and earned All-State honors his senior season. But despite his success, no SEC schools came calling as some still weren’t offering many scholarships to black players.
He originally committed to play at Kansas State but then decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and enrolled at Jackson State, a historically black school. It was here that Walter Payton truly made a name for himself, proving to all the schools that had passed on him that they’d made a huge mistake.
Walter Payton put up crazy numbers at Jackson State
Walter Payton arrived at Jackson State in 1971 and had a solid freshman season, rushing for 651 yards and averaging 6.9 yards per carry. In addition to scoring five touchdowns, he also assisted in kicking duties and made 13 extra points and three field goals. In his sophomore season, he was given a bigger role in the offense and upped his numbers, rushing for 781 yards and 15 touchdowns, also kicking 21 extra points. In one game, a 72-0 drubbing of Lane College, Payton rushed for 279 yards and seven touchdowns, both school records.
In 1973, Walter Payton rushed for 1,139 yards and 24 touchdowns, the latter being yet another school record. He was named the Black College Player of the Year, an award he won again his senior season. In 1974, Payton was named an All-American, rushing for 1,029 yards and 19 touchdowns. He ended his college career with 3,600 rushing yards, 63 touchdowns, 53 extra points made, and five field goals.
The NFL career of ‘Sweetness’
The Chicago Bears selected Walter Payton with the fourth pick of the 1975 NFL draft. His career got off to a rocky start as he gained exactly zero yards on eight carries in his pro debut against the Baltimore Colts. But he continued to work and continued to improve each and every week. In the Bears’ final game of the ’75 campaign, he rushed for a then-career-high 134 yards, finishing the season with 679 yards and seven touchdowns. But then Walter Payton’s career really took off.
In 1976, he earned his first Pro Bowl selection, rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 1977, he became the youngest player to win NFL MVP, leading the Bears to their first playoff berth in 14 years. Also named NFL Man of the Year that season, Payton rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns, both league highs. “Sweetness” also broke the single-game rushing record that year, rushing for a career-high 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, a record that stood for 23 years.
Over the next decade, Walter Payton continued to dominate the NFL. He became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 1984 and then led the Bears to their first and only Super Bowl title following the 1985 season, although he didn’t score a touchdown in Chicago’s 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots. It’s a decision former Bears head coach Mike Ditka regrets to this day.
Walter Payton retired following the 1987 season. In 13 seasons in the Windy City, he rushed for 16,726 yards, a record that stood until 2002 when it was broken by Emmitt Smith. Payton was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a seven-time First-Team All-Pro selection, a Bert Bell Award winner, and was named to the All-Decade Team in both the 1970s and 1980s. His 125 career touchdowns are still good for 11th on the all-time list. Walter Payton missed just one game in his career and that came in his rookie season. He was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Walter Payton tragically passed away in 1999
In February 1999, an emotional Walter Payton announced that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease that also affects the gallbladder. Although he himself wasn’t a viable candidate for a transplant as his illness was in the advanced stages, he spent the final months of his life as an advocate for organ donation. Even if he couldn’t help himself, he wanted to help others, which just goes to prove the type of man that he was. Walter Payton passed away on November 1, 1999, at the age of 45.
Soon after his death, the NFL added Walter Payton’s name to its annual Man of the Year Award, an honor given to a player that makes a significant impact in his community, which Payton certainly did in his life. Following his plea for organ donation, centers throughout the state of Illinois were flooded with calls asking how they could sign up. But even before then, Payton was one of the most giving athletes in the world. He set up toy drives for kids and became involved in so many charities in the Chicago area, eventually establishing the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, a not-for-profit organization designed to help those in need, ensuring the legacy of Walter Payton will live on for quite some time.