NFL history is full of transcendent athletes whose very existence seemed to go beyond their play on the field.
Walter Payton was such an athlete.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) April 2, 2022
After establishing his success in college, Payton became a member of the Chicago Bears and helped lift the franchise back to respectability.
He would win a Super Bowl with Chicago and become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader by the time of his retirement.
After retiring, Payton gave back to his community and was an inspiration to others.
In all things, the man they called “Sweetness” was a giant among men and led by example.
Unfortunately, even giants can be laid low by the unexpected.
In 1999, a rare liver disease would end up claiming Payton’s life at the age of 45.
This is the story of Walter Payton.
Walter Jerry Payton was born on July 25, 1954 (some sources have his birth year as 1953) in Columbia, Mississippi.
He was the youngest of three children and, initially, Payton wasn’t overly enthusiastic about sports, although he did play Little League baseball.
His older brother, Eddie, had abundant athletic talent and Walter didn’t want to compete with him.
Instead, while Eddie shined on the gridiron, young Walter chose to play the drums in his high school band.
He also ran track and sang in the school choir.
When Eddie graduated, the coach for John J. Jefferson High School asked Payton, a rising junior, to try out for the football team.
Payton agreed to join the team as long as he could continue playing in the school band.
Born this day in 1954, the greatest running back of all-time, the late Walter Payton. After his brother graduated h.s., the football coach asked Walter if he'd like to try out. He agreed on the condition that he be allowed to continue playing in the band. #Bears #NFL #GOAT pic.twitter.com/WM8QuavfZb
— WGNTV (@WGNTV) July 25, 2020
On his very first carry as a high school running back, Payton ran the ball 65 yards for a touchdown.
Later in the game he would score on a 75-yard run.
Throughout the season, Payton’s speed and agility carried the day and he led the program to an 8-2 record.
He was then named to the all-state and all-conference teams.
Before Payton’s senior year, Jefferson High (an all-black school) integrated with Columbia High School, which was an all-white school.
As part of the merger, Payton’s coach became an assistant under the coach from Columbia High.
Payton initially protested the reassignment, but decided to play anyway.
In 1970, he would be named all-state and all-conference again while also leading the Little Dixie Conference in scoring.
He also had the distinction of scoring in every game he played during his junior and senior years.
Payton stayed busy his last two years in high school, playing not only football but basketball, baseball, and track as well as continuing to play drums in the band.
Even with his obvious talent no SEC schools came to recruit Payton.
He committed to Kansas State, then withdrew his commitment to attend Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
The historically black college just happened to be where Payton’s brother, Eddie, was playing.
For the next few years, Payton dominated the competition and set the Southwestern Athletic Conference on fire with his play.
After rushing for 651 yards and five touchdowns in 1971, Payton increased those totals to 781 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1972.
During a game against Lane College in ‘72, Payton scored seven touchdowns and two, two-point conversions.
— BJ Jones (@InsideHBCUFball) January 20, 2022
The totals set a then conference mark for single-game scoring. Payton also set a conference record that day with 279 rushing yards.
In his junior season in 1973, Payton rushed 205 times for 1,139 yards and a program record 24 touchdowns.
He would be named Black College Player of the Year for his efforts.
Payton’s senior year was sensational as well.
During the 1975 season, he toted the rock 175 times for 1,029 yards and 19 scores.
Once again, he was named the Black College Player of the Year and was also selected as a member of the 1974 College Football All-American team.
Not only was Payton proficient as a runner, but he was also used as a kicker for the Tigers.
In four years, he made 53 extra points and five field goals total.
It was during his time at Jackson State that Payton was given the nickname “Sweetness.”
There are a number of origin stories for the moniker.
However, it has been shared that the nickname began when Payton eluded a tackler in practice.
He then called over his shoulder to the tackler and said, “Your sweetness is your weakness!”
In four years as a Tiger, Sweetness ran the ball 598 times for 3,600 yards (six yards per carry average), and 63 touchdowns (a school record).
He also set an NCAA record for total points with 464.
Unlike after high school, all the teams in the NFL were well aware of who Walter Payton was.
Payton becomes a Bear
With the fourth overall pick of the 1975 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears selected Payton.
There was heavy debate among the staff of the Dallas Cowboys, who owned the second pick, whether to take Payton or defensive tackle Randy White from Maryland.
Eventually, the Cowboys chose White.
In his rookie year of 1975, Payton started seven games.
His first game did not portend great things, however, as he gained zero yards on eight carries.
Thankfully, by the last game of the season, things were picking up.
Against the New Orleans Saints in the finale, Payton ran the ball 20 times for 134 yards.
His first-year totals were 679 yards rushing with seven touchdowns, 213 reception yards, and 444 kick return yards.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 13, 2022
Payton’s 31.7 yards per kickoff return led the NFL.
Things picked up in his second season.
That year, Payton rushed a league-high 311 times for 1,390 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 149 receiving yards.
Just to show his versatility, Payton even completed a pass in 1976 for 54 yards and a touchdown.
For his efforts, Payton was selected for the first of nine Pro Bowls and was also voted first-team All-Pro as Chicago improved from 4-10 in 1975 to 7-7 in 1976.
Payton Helps Chicago Return to the Playoffs
Payton’s first game as a pro may have started off poorly, but by his third year, he was on his way to huge accomplishments.
In 1977, he officially announced his arrival with 339 carries for 1,852 yards (a career-high), 14 touchdowns, a 5.5 yards per carry average, 132.3 yards per game average, and 269 receiving yards for two more scores.
Every one of Payton’s rushing stats led the NFL that season (including total yards from scrimmage).
Part of his rushing totals included a game against Minnesota on November 20 when he rushed for an NFL record 275 yards.
Good morning and happy Friday!
Today in 1977, Walter Payton ran for an NFL record 275 yards in a 10-7 Bears win over the Vikings.
Sweetness overcame the flu and a 101 degree temperature to secure the win and the record that lasted for 23 years. pic.twitter.com/tG32NiZjpP
— Steve Cortes (@CortesSteve) November 20, 2020
Of course, he did this while playing with the flu and suffering from a 101-degree temperature.
Payton’s single-game record would not be broken until 2000.
He was voted to the Pro Bowl again (and would be named the game’s MVP) and was a first-team All-Pro.
Additionally, Payton received the league’s MVP award along with NFL Offensive Player of the Year and NFL Man of the Year accolades (later renamed in his honor).
Better yet, for the first time since 1963, the Bears returned to the postseason.
Their playoff appearance was short-lived when they were crushed by Dallas 37-7 in the Divisional round.
In 1978, Payton led the league again in carries with 333 for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He also added 480 receiving yards.
Payton’s total touches (which includes carries and receptions) as well as his total yards from scrimmage led the NFL.
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) April 9, 2022
The Bears, meanwhile, regressed to a 7-9 record.
1979 would see Chicago return to the postseason again where they would lose to Philadelphia 27-17 in the Wild Card round.
Payton led the league again in carries with 369 for 1,610 yards, 14 scores, and 313 receiving yards.
His total touches also led the NFL in ‘79.
Chicago’s Lean Years
After their playoff appearance in 1979, the Bears had four consecutive years of losing football.
The only exception was 1983 when the team went 8-8.
However, there were signs that the franchise’s fortunes were beginning to change.
In 1982, former Bears and Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka returned to Chicago to coach the team.
His first two seasons as head coach weren’t much to write home about, but he was getting the team on track.
Also, while the team was struggling, Payton continued to be a bright spot for Chicago.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 6, 2020
He rushed for over 1,200 yards each season between 1980 and 1983 except for the strike-shortened ‘82 season when he had only 596 yards.
The Bears are World Champs in 1985
Chicago started rolling in 1984 when the team began the year with three wins and would end the season 10-6.
After beating Washington in the Divisional round, the Bears were shut out by San Francisco 23-0 in the NFC Championship Game.
Payton had 1,684 rushing yards to pace the team, which was the second-highest total of his career.
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) April 11, 2022
Then, in 1985, everything fell into place for Chicago.
The organization had assembled a motley crew of individuals on both sides of the ball.
Chicago’s defense was led by coordinator Buddy Ryan and boasted all-stars at every position group.
The Bears offense had Payton, who rushed for 1,551 yards and nine scores that year, along with quarterback Jim McMahon, receiver Willie Gault, and an offensive line that battered opponents.
Together this collection of individuals collected 15 wins against only one loss in 1985.
Along the way, many team members recorded a song titled The Super Bowl Shuffle.
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) March 29, 2017
Payton contributed memorable lyrics to the song including, “Well, they call me Sweetness and I like to dance, runnin’ the ball is like makin’ romance.”
He also added, “Now we’re not doing this because we’re greedy, the Bears are doing it to feed the needy,” which was a reference to the song being recorded for Chicago Community Trust, an organization that provided for Chicago’s needy families.
As if the regular season wasn’t dominating enough, Chicago then blanked both the Giants and Rams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
That meant the Bears would be appearing in Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots.
Walter Payton at Super Bowl XX media day in 1986 pic.twitter.com/V4HA2U1MA1
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) February 1, 2016
The Pats would prove to be overmatched as the Bears ran over, through, and around them for a 46-10 victory.
In fact, Chicago was so dominant and scored in so many different ways that Payton was an afterthought.
He carried the ball 22 times for 61 yards and did not score a touchdown.
Ditka has since stated that, while New England keyed heavily on Payton, he wished he had helped find a scoring opportunity for Payton.
Despite Payton’s limited contributions, the Bears had a world title and a Super Bowl ring.
In 1986, Chicago continued to pound opponents and finished with a 14-2 record.
However, the quest for a repeat championship ended when the Redskins defeated the Bears 27-13 in the Divisional round
Payton rushed for 1,333 yards, eight scores, and added 382 receiving yards.
Although he made the Pro Bowl for his ninth time, the wear and tear on his body had caught up with him.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) March 24, 2022
After the ‘86 season ended, Payton announced that 1987 would be his final year as a pro.
In ‘87, Payton split carries with Neal Anderson, his eventual replacement.
With the reduced workload, Payton rushed for only 533 yards, the lowest of his career.
The Bears took an 11-4 record into the postseason where they lost again to Washington in the Divisional round.
With that, Payton retired.
He finished his 13-year career with the most rushing yards in history, 16,726, which has since been broken by Emmitt Smith.
Payton also scored 110 touchdowns and caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He also set numerous team records, including most career rushing yards, receptions, touchdowns, and touchdown passes by a running back (8).
Your yearly update: Walter Payton still has two more career NFL touchdown passes than Johnny Manziel. pic.twitter.com/FCZOZuh0h4
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) April 6, 2022
Payton was a Super Bowl champion, nine-time Pro Bowler, five-time first-team All-Pro, a league rushing yards, attempts and scoring leader, NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, Man of the Year, and Bert Bell Award winner (1985).
He has been named to the NFL’s 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams and the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Payton’s number 34 has been retired by Chicago and he is one of the 100 Greatest Bears of all time.
Once he left the game, Payton tried to fill the void left by not playing football.
He joined the Bears Board of Directors and then was part of an ownership group that tried to buy the new St. Louis Rams.
When that group failed to buy the relocated Rams, Payton invested in CART racing with Dale Coyne.
He also started a restaurant, Walter Payton’s Roundhouse, in Aurora, Illinois.
Payton would also raise awareness for organ donation with his wife, Connie.
Payton was selected for the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
In 1999, Payton shocked the sports world by announcing that he had a rare liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, which can lead to cancer of the bile ducts in the liver.
He had been sick for several months and friends and former teammates wondered if there was something wrong.
To hide his condition, Payton said he was training for a marathon.
His announcement ended that notion and all of Chicago prepared for the worst.
As the cancer spread to other parts of his body, Payton spent more time with his family and close friends.
Today is the 20th anniversary of Walter Payton's death.
Is Sweetness the greatest running back in history? pic.twitter.com/o67RGJDs7F
— Audacy Sports (@AudacySports) November 1, 2019
On November 1, 1999, Walter Payton died.
“It’s a big shock because he was the strongest man I met in my entire life,” said Jim McMahon at the time.
Payton would leave behind a legacy as a tough football player but a kind man.
His son, Jarrett, followed in his father’s footsteps and would eventually become a running back for the Tennessee Titans.
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation continues its call for organ donors and has helped raise nationwide awareness of the need for donors.