Walter Jerry Payton (July 25, 1954 – November 1, 1999) was an American football running back who played for theChicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL) for thirteen seasons. Walter Payton was known around the NFL as “Sweetness“. He is remembered as one of the most prolific running backs in the history of American football. Payton, a nine-time Pro Bowl selectee, once held the league’s record for most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage, all-purpose yards, and many other categories. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Hall of Fame NFL player and coach Mike Ditka described Payton as the greatest football player he had ever seen—but even greater as a human being.
Payton began his football career in Mississippi, and went on to have an outstanding collegiate football career at Jackson State University where he was an All-American. He started his professional career with the Bears in 1975, who selected him as the 1975 Draft‘s fourth overall pick. Payton proceeded to win two NFL Most Valuable Player Awards and won Super Bowl XX with the 1985 Chicago Bears. After struggling with the rare liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis for several months, Payton died on November 1, 1999, aged 45, from cholangiocarcinoma. His legacy includes the Walter Payton Award, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and a heightened awareness of the need for organ donations.
Payton was one of three children born to Edward and Alyne Payton in Columbia, Mississippi. His father was a factory worker who had played semi-professional baseball. Payton was an active member of the Boy Scouts, Little League, and his localchurch. At John J. Jefferson High School, Payton played drums in the marching band, participated in the track team and sang in the school choir. Outside of school, he played drums in jazz-rock groups.
During his first few years at high school, his older brother Eddie was on the football team, and Payton did not play partly to avoid competing with him. After Eddie graduated, the football coach asked Payton to try out for the team, and he agreed on condition that he be allowed to continue playing in the band. Once he began to play football, as a junior, he achieved instant success as a running back. At 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m), he was not especially large, but his speed and strength made him one of the team’s featured players. Jefferson High School was integrated with neighboring Columbia High School that year; Payton and his teammates were upset that their head coach, Charles L. Boston, had become an assistant and Payton boycotted some of the spring practices in protest, but returned during the fall season. He then earned state-wide honors as a member of Mississippi’s all-state team, leading Columbia to an unexpected 8-2 season. His performance helped ease the local tensions surrounding desegregation.
Although Payton had established himself as one of the state’s top running back prospects, he received no invitations fromSoutheastern Conference colleges or universities, which were accepting only a few black players at the time. He decided to pursue his collegiate career at the historically black, Jackson State University, where his older brother Eddie had played football (declining a scholarship offer from the University of Kansas, where fellow Chicago Bears running back legend Gale Sayers had played).
While attending Jackson State, Payton played alongside many future professional football players, including Jerome Barkum, Robert Brazile, and Jackie Slater. As a member of the Jackson State Tigers, Payton rushed for more than 3,500 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Also, he broke the NCAA‘s scoring record by rushing for 65 touchdowns during his college career. In 1973, Payton was selected for the All-American Team. The following year he was named Black College Player of the Year. Payton graduated in 1975 with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.
He acquired the nickname “Sweetness” in college. The nickname’s origin is ambiguous: it is variously said to have stemmed from his personality, from his athletic grace, or as a sarcastic description of his aggressive playing style. In 1996, Payton was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. On January 18, 2010, it was announced that Payton would be one of eleven members of the inaugural class inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame on February 20, 2010.
The Chicago Bears drafted Payton in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft, as the fourth overall pick. The Bears had endured several losing seasons after the retirement of the iconic Gale Sayers in 1972. Payton’s first game was not particularly successful; he was held to zero net rushing yards on eight attempts. His best performance of the season was the final game against the New Orleans Saints, where he rushed for 134 yards on 20 carries. Payton finished the season with only 679 yards and seven touchdowns.
Payton was eager to improve his performance. During the 1976 NFL season, Payton rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. After the season, he was selected to play in the 1977 Pro Bowl, where he was declared the Pro Bowl MVP. The next year, he rushed for 1,852 yards and scored 16 touchdowns, becoming the league’s leading scorer for the season. He earned numerous awards that season, including the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America’s Most Valuable Player awards. A memorable game of the 1977 NFL season was against the Minnesota Vikings on November 20. He rushed for a then-record 275 yards, breaking the previous record of 273 yards held by O.J. Simpson. In that record-setting game against the Vikings, Payton was suffering with a 101-degree fever and intense flu. His longest run was for 58 yards, and he caught one pass for 6 yards. His record stood for 23 years until Corey Dillon of the Cincinnati Bengals ran for 278 yards in 2000. By the end of the decade, Payton had received additional accolades for his exploits as a blocker, receiver, emergency punter, and quarterback.
The Bears struggled to assemble consecutive winning seasons, landing only two playoff berths since his arrival. The lack of success prompted the Bears’ management to replace Neill Armstrong with Mike Ditka for the season that began in the Fall of 1982. Ditka, a tight end during the 1960s and 1970s who would also join the Pro Football Hall of Fame, led the Bears to a 3–6 (strike-shortened) record in 1982. He led the Bears to an 8–8 finish in 1983 and to a 10–6 finish in 1984. Payton continued his success by rushing for more than 1,400 yards in both seasons. On October 7, 1984, Payton broke Jim Brown‘s career rushing record of 12,312 yards. In 1985, Payton rushed for more than 1,500 yards, helping the Bears establish the league’s second-best offense. The Bears’ 46 defense of that season would go on to become one of the best in NFL history, setting a record for fewest points allowed.
Payton performed with his teammates in the widely released 1985 music video The Super Bowl Shuffle. The Bears went on to a 15–1 record that culminated in a 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Although Payton’s offensive prowess had assisted the Bears throughout the 1985 season, the New England Patriots prevented him from reaching the end zone. According to quarterback Jim McMahon, he was targeted by two or three defenders on every play. In a later interview, Ditka stated that Payton’s lack of a touchdown in this game was one of his major regrets.
Payton, who was a 12-year veteran, amassed 1,333 yards in the 1986 NFL season. The Bears won the NFC Central Division, but lost to the Washington Redskins 27–13 in the divisional round. At the end of the 1986 season, he announced that he would retire after completing the 1987 NFL season. During his last season with the Bears, Payton split carries with his successor, Neal Anderson, and rushed for only 533 yards. Payton’s career ended with another loss to the Washington Redskins in the divisional round of the playoffs by the score of 21–17 on January 10, 1988. Over his entire career, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards, which broke the record for most rushing yards by any NFL player in history, and scored 110 touchdowns. He caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns. Payton set several team records, including most career rushing yards, receptions, and touchdowns. His jersey number was retired by the Bears, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. The only game he missed in his 13-year career was in his rookie season of 1975.
Payton’s motto was “Never Die Easy”, which is also the title of his posthumously published autobiography. Payton attributed this motto to Bob Hill, his coach at Jackson State. In practice, this meant that Payton refused to deliberately run out-of-bounds and always delivered some punishment to his tacklers before being forced off the field or forced down.
One of Payton’s signature maneuvers was the “stutter-step”, a high-stepping, irregularly paced run. He developed this as a way to distract his pursuers during long runs, saying that it startled them into thinking and gave him some advantage over players who were actually faster runners. In his autobiography, he likened the stutter step to a kind of “option play”: when he was stutter-stepping, defenders would have to commit to a pursuit angle based upon whether they thought he would accelerate after the stutter-step, or cut — he would read this angle and do the opposite of what the defender had committed to.
He re-invented the practice of stiff-arming his tacklers, which had gone out of favor among running backs in the 1970s. At times, he used his high school experience as a long jumper to leap over his opponents, landing on his head in the end zone to gain a touchdown in a game against the Buffalo Bills. His running gait was somewhat unusual, as his knees were minimally bent, and the motion was largely powered from the hip. This may have given his knees, a football player’s most vulnerable joints, some protection, although he underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees in 1983. He referred to this procedure as an 11,000-yard checkup.
After scoring touchdowns, Payton declined to celebrate; instead, he would often hand the ball to his teammates or the official. He disapproved of the growing practice of touchdown celebrations; he preferred post-game antics such as rushing into the locker room and locking his teammates out in the cold while taking a long shower. Although Payton would have won the respect of his peers and coaches by his running alone, he made 492 receptions and over 4,000 yards over his career and was a consistent threat in the passing game.
Payton married Connie Norwood in 1976. During his rookie years he resided in a home on the north side of Arlington Heights, Illinois. The couple had two children, Jarrett Payton (born 1980) and Brittney (born December 26, 1985) and resided in South Barrington, Illinois.
In 1995, Walter, along with many other investors, sought to bring an NFL expansion team to St. Louis, Missouri. Although the NFL strongly favored a franchise in St. Louis, their efforts were thwarted because of internal dissension among the investment group members leading the NFL to award franchises to investment groups in Jacksonville, Florida(Jacksonville Jaguars) and Charlotte, North Carolina (Carolina Panthers).
Payton pursued various business ventures in retirement, including becoming co-owner of Dale Coyne Racing in the CART IndyCar World Series. He also drove in several Trans-Am Series events, including a 1993 race at Road America in which his car overturned and caught fire. He suffered burns but escaped serious injury.
In 1995, he and several partners purchased a Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad roundhouse in Aurora, Illinois. The property became known as “Walter Payton’s Roundhouse“, hosting a restaurant, brewery, banquet and meeting facility, and museum. In 1999 the property received an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The beers brewed at the Roundhouse received awards in the 2000s. Payton appeared on a 1987 episode of Saturday Night Live (co-hosting with fellow football player Joe Montana).
Illness and death
In February 1999, Payton announced that he had a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis, which may have led to his cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). He spent his final months as an advocate for organ transplants, appearing in many commercials to encourage others to donate organs, although by the time his first appeal was recorded, his illness was already too far advanced for transplantation to have been a viable option. In April of that year, Payton made a final public appearance at a Chicago Cubs game with Mike Ditka, where he threw the game’s ceremonial first pitch. Author Don Yaeger worked with him during the last weeks of his life to create his autobiography, Never Die Easy.
On November 1, 1999, Payton died from the complications that arose from his illness. He was 45 years old. During the same week, the NFL held special ceremonies in each game to commemorate his career and legacy. In addition, the Chicago Bears wore special #34 patches on their jerseys to honor Payton. His body was cremated after his death.
Speakers at Payton’s public funeral service, held in Soldier Field, included Jesse Jackson; former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue; former teammateDan Hampton; his widow Connie Payton; and his children, Jarrett and Brittney. Among the 1,000 mourners at the private service were John Madden; Illinois Governor George Ryan; Chicago’s mayor Richard M. Daley; former teammates Matt Suhey, Mike Singletary, Roland Harper, and Jim McMahon; the Bears’ equipment manager and building superintendent; and many other people representing a wide social, political, and economic spectrum.
Payton’s legacy continues through the charitable Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. His own appeals—and after his death, his foundation’s—for greater awareness of the need for organ donations are widely credited with bringing national attention to the problem. After his appeals, donations in Illinois skyrocketed, and the regional organ bank of Illinois was overwhelmed with calls. In response, the City of Chicago inserted organ donation requests into city-vehicle-registration mailings in early 2000, and, by August 2000, 13,000 people had signed on to the program. The foundation continues to run a program that Payton organized to donate toys to underprivileged children across the Chicago area each Christmas. The family established the Walter Payton Cancer Fund in 2002.
Many modern NFL running backs have cited Payton as a source of inspiration. Emmitt Smith tearfully paid homage to Payton after breaking Payton’s rushing record.LaDainian Tomlinson, who set numerous records during the 2006 NFL season, named Payton as one of his foremost mentors and inspirations. Ahman Green, a former player for the Bears’ rival Green Bay Packers, is said to have idolized Payton, viewing the highlight film “Pure Payton” before each game. Walter’s son, Jarrett Payton, was a running back for the Tennessee Titans, NFL Europe‘s Amsterdam Admirals, CFL‘s Montreal Alouettes and IFL‘s Chicago Slaughter. During his tenure at the University of Miami, Jarrett wore a #34 jersey to honor his father’s memory. In 2009, Jarrett married on March 4, which was intentionally set to coincide with Payton’s jersey number.
The city of Chicago has honored Payton’s memory in several ways. In 1999, the city created a special city sticker that featured Payton. The profits from the sales of these stickers along with the special license plate created by the State of Illinois are given to support organ-donor programs across Illinois. Also, the city named a high school,Walter Payton College Prep, in his honor. In September 2007, the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center opened the Walter Payton Liver Center. Chicago Metracommuters have long been witness to a simple “#34 Sweetness”, painted on a bridge piling of the Air Line on the south end of the Chicago Union Station yards. The CBS sitcom Mike and Molly honored Payton in 2011 with “The Walter Payton Elementary School”.
Until its sale to Two Brothers Brewing in 2011, Walter Payton’s Roundhouse continued to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the Aurora, Illinois site. There are two athletic awards named after Payton. The NCAA gives the “Walter Payton Award” to the best offensive player from a Division I FCS (still often known by its former designation of Division I-AA) football team. The NFL hands out the “Walter Payton Man of the Year” award for player achievements in community service during a particular season.
The Chicago Bears honored Payton’s career and life on November 1, 2009 by airing a special tribute video during halftime. The video consisted of highlight clips from Payton’s career and interview segments from Mike Ditka, Virginia McCaskey, Richard Dent, and many other members of the Bears organization. Payton’s wife, daughter, son, and mother were present to watch the video, which aired on Soldier Field‘s Jumbotron.
After Payton’s death, Nickol Knoll Hill, an old landfill site turned into a golf course in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was renamed “Payton’s Hill”. There are two plaques on the hill to remind visitors of the hill that it was where Payton used to train in 1970s/80s. Payton did his morning run at the hill everyday. Pictures and memorabilia of Payton cover the walls of the golf course club house.
Payton was the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards prior to the 2002 NFL season, when Emmitt Smith broke his record. He also held the single game rushing record until the 2000 NFL season, when it was broken by Corey Dillon. Payton led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns in the 1977 NFL season. Also, he was among the top-ten players for rushing attempts during his entire career, including 1976, 1977, and 1978, leading the category in 1979. As of 2006, he was the NFL’s second all-time rusher, and he ranked third in rushing touchdowns scored. Along with Frank Gifford, Payton threw six (6) interceptions, more than any other non-quarterback position in NFL history. He also passed for 8 touchdowns.
|*||Former NFL record|
|Yards from Scrimmage||21,264*||810|
(does not include passing yards)
Consecutive regular season starts by a running back: 170, from December 7, 1975 to September 20, 1987
- Payton missed only one game in his career due to a coach’s decision, despite being eligible.
Rushing yards gained
Rushing yards gained, career: 16,726
- Broken by Emmitt Smith
- Payton played in only nine games during the 1982 season due to the player’s strike.
- Broken by Emmitt Smith
Rushing yards gained, game: 275, Chicago Bears vs. Minnesota Vikings, November 20, 1977
- Record first broken by Corey Dillon on October 22, 2000
Games with 100 or more yards rushing, career: 77
Consecutive games with 100 or more yards rushing: 9, from October 13, 1985 to December 8, 1985
- Broken by Barry Sanders
Rushing touchdowns, career: 110
- First broken by Marcus Allen; record now held by Emmitt Smith
Yards from scrimmage gained
Yards from scrimmage gained, career: 21,264
- Broken by Jerry Rice
Games with 100 or more yards from scrimmage gained, career: 108
All-purpose attempts, career: 4,368
- Broken by Emmitt Smith
All-purpose attempts, season: 400 (1979)
All-purpose yards gained
All-purpose yards gained, career: 21,803
Games with 150 or more all-purpose yards gained, career: 46
- Tied by Barry Sanders