American football legend, Walter Payton (1954-1999), earned a place in history with his career rushing record of 16,726 yards—an all-time high in the National Football League. The Hall-of-Fame running back played his entire 13-year career with the Chicago Bears. He was a tough competitor who refused to "go down" easily. Where other players would run for the sidelines to avoid a crushing tackle, Payton faced defensive blockers squarely head-on; he made them "earn" the down for a tackle.
Walter Jerry Payton was born in Columbia, Mississippi on July 25, 1954. He was one of three siblings—two boys and one girl—the children of Peter and Alyne Payton. In his younger years, Payton was never a competitive athlete. He stood supportively in the shadow of his older brother, Eddie, and refused to steal the limelight. Instead, Payton took an interest in music and learned to play the drums. He joined the school band in high school, and he sang and played with various rhythm and blues groups in his spare time. During his freshman year of high school he participated in only one sport, track and field. He ventured into football the following year, at the request of the sophomore coach. Payton immediately showed promise when he gained 65 yards on his first ball carry and racked at least one touchdown in every game. By his senior year of high school, Payton's accomplishments were impressive. He continued to play with the school band, stretched his long jump record to 22-feet-11-and-1/4-inches, lettered in basketball, and earned a place on the allstate football team. He averaged 18 points per game on the gridiron, and he was an excellent student. Major universities courted him, but Payton, who was raised in a segregated culture, enrolled at Jackson State University, a small school with a predominantly African American student body.
During his junior year at Jackson, Payton ranked among the top-scoring collegiate football players nationwide, with a total of 160 points for the season. By the end of his senior year he amassed a career total of 464 points—a National College Athletic Association (NCAA) record at that time. Payton graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications at the age of 20, after only three-and-one-half years of school. He enrolled in graduate level courses to prepare for a career in education for the deaf. Payton was a serious student, who belied the prevailing stereotype that athletes were of low intelligence.
Signed with the Chicago Bears
In 1975, when the National Football League (NFL) drafted new recruits from among the graduating college seniors, the Chicago Bears selected Payton as their first choice. He was the fourth player to be selected in the nationwide draft. The Bears offered Payton a bonus of $126,000 as an incentive to join their team. It was the highest signing bonus ever offered to a college player at that time. His performance on the field justified the bonus. After his rookie year Payton led the NFL in kickoff returns. By the end of his football career, in 1987, he held the league record for career rushing yardage, including 110 touchdowns.
In 1977, Payton led the NFL with the most yards rushed in a single game, with 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. For that single performance he received the Most Valuable Player award (MVP) for the season. At the age of 23, he was the youngest player ever to receive the award. That season was Payton's personal best, as he averaged a gain of 5.5 yards per ball carry (the highest of his career), and rushed for 1,852 yards, including 14 touchdowns. The Bears signed Payton to a three-year contract in 1978, with annual salaries approaching one-half million dollars. In 1983, he signed the highest contract in NFL history, with a $240,000 lifetime annuity.
Payton proved worthy of the large salary. In 13 years as a player, he missed only one game and later regretted the failing. Payton's day of true glory came on October 7, 1984 on a six-yard play against the New Orleans Saints. The historic run pushed Payton's career rushing yards to a NFL record, surpassing legendary Jim Brown's record of 12,312 career yards. Since that day other players rushed over 13,000 yards, but none bested Payton's career total of 16,726 yards. That same year Chicago played in the conference championship game, an event that had eluded the team repeatedly. The opinion was widely held that Payton was the definitive factor in bringing the Chicago football team to such a high level of achievement. That view was confirmed at the end of the 1985 season when the Bears achieved a memorable win in Super Bowl XX, scoring their first NFL championship since 1963.
Payton was 33 years old when he retired from active play in 1987, having rushed on 77 occasions for over 100 game yards. In ten seasons he rushed for over 1,000 yards, and he ran the ball well over 3,000 times. In 13 years of play he made nine appearances in the Pro Bowl. He shed tears at the end, and it became evident why Payton earned the nickname of "Sweetness" as a college player, and why the label stuck with him throughout his life. Payton's great stamina and fluid motion on the playing field contributed to his legendary reputation. His private training regimen included an exhausting daily run of 20 laps, up and down a steep hill, for overall conditioning and to build endurance. Opposing players respected Payton for facing tacklers head-on. At five-feet-ten-and-one-half inches and 204 pounds, he was never the largest, nor the fastest, but few commanded more respect.
Life After Football
Football to Payton was a job that he did for a time. It was not his chosen career. The essence of his life's work as a businessman and entrepreneur took shape after he retired. He founded his own company, Walter Payton Incorporated, in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and later moved the business to Schaumburg. Payton Incorporated dealt in various businesses including real estate, travel, and nursing homes. The company was part owner in 20 restaurants and clubs worldwide. Payton managed his businesses personally; he took a hands-on approach to every transaction. He sold his time as both a spokesperson and as a motivational speaker, and lent his endorsement to other companies including Realta Men's Wear, Bryan Foods, Entertainment One, and Chili's Restaurants. He indulged his interest in auto racing, learned to drive the stock cars himself, and invested as co-owner with speedway developer, Dale Coyne, in a car racing business called Payton-Coyne Racing Incorporated. The two owned a fleet of Indy-CART-sanctioned race cars.
In 1988, Payton joined the board of directors of the Chicago Bears. It was uncommon for the board to invite a former player into their ranks; he was only the second player to be so honored. The late Michael McCaskey, then owner of the Bears, quelled media speculation with an announcement that Payton's election to the board was based on "the qualities that he would bring. He is a very smart and very able man, and he loves football. We have sought Walter's advice and counsel." McCaskey was quoted in Chicago, by Richard Lalich. In the early 1990s, Payton was also appointed to the NFL commissioner's board. In 1993, he purchased a 15 percent interest with a group of investors, in a bid to bring an NFL expansion team to the St. Louis, Missouri area.
Payton's first love was for his family. He and his wife, Connie, were married on July 7, 1976 and had two children: Jarrett, born in the early 1980s, and Brittney, born some five years later. He estimated that 75 percent of his time was spent in matters relating to his children. Undoubtedly one of the finest moments of Payton's life occurred in 1998 when he announced that his son would attend the University of Miami and play college football as a running back. Payton's second priority, which often took precedence over business, was the Hoffman Estates High School basketball team, where he volunteered as an assistant coach. His business colleagues shook their heads in disbelief when he cancelled meetings and consultations to be with the team at a game or a practice. According to Payton he loved basketball, whereas football was a means of employment. He was devoted to other children's programs as well and, in 1988, founded the Walter Payton Foundation for needy children. He also co-founded and staffed the Wood and Strings Puppet Theater at Skyway Elementary School.
Payton was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986. It came as no surprise that he was selected for induction to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on July 31, 1993. At the ceremony Jarrett Payton, then 12 years old, presented the Hall of Fame induction award to his father with the words, "'Not only is my dad an exceptional athlete, he's my biggest role model and best friend."
An Untimely Death
In October 1998, Payton consulted a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He had been experiencing severe indigestion and weight loss. The doctors soon discovered the source of his discomfort. On February 2, 1999, Payton announced that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a progressive disease of the liver. Without a liver transplant, Payton's condition was terminal. A subsequent diagnosis of bile duct cancer precluded the transplant. In the spring of 1999 he threw out the first baseball of the season at Wrigley Field for the Chicago Cubs in what was effectively his last public appearance.
Payton died on November 1, 1999 in Barrington, Illinois at the age of 45. His wife, children, and mother survived him. Many dignitaries including the U.S. secretary of state, the governor of Illinois, and the commissioner of the NFL attended Payton's funeral at Life Changers Church in Barrington Hills, Illinois. A public memorial at Chicago's Soldier Field was televised nationally on November 6.
In the days after Payton's death, many prominent personalities came forward to eulogize "Sweetness." In a widely quoted remark, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka called Payton, ''The very best football player I've ever seen, period, at any position," according to the New York Times and other sources. The Times went on to quote NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, who labeled Payton, "[O]ne of the greatest players in the history of the sport." Virginia Halas McCaskey, owner of the Chicago Bears, made an emotional statement in mourning the loss. Payton's colleague, Tim Brown, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle by Nancy Gay and David Bush, "He proved that you didn't have to be 6-4 and 230 pounds to be a physical football player. But when you needed that one yard he always could get it for you." President Bill Clinton made a public statement of sorrow; he praised Payton's ability to endure illness with, "the same grit and determination that he showed every week on the football field."
Payton's autobiography, Sweetness, was published in 1978. He issued a sound recording, Winning in Life, in 1986. A second memoir, Never Die Easy, remained un-completed at the time of Payton's death.
Further Reading on Walter Payton
Chicago, July 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1999.
New York Times, November 2, 1999.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 1999.
Southern Living, May 1993.
Sports Illustrated, November 8, 1999.