One of the NFL
's all-time great running back
s, whose illness
and untimely death
shocked the sports world
Payton wasn't a huge back in stature (The Pro Football Hall of Fame's site lists him at 5'10", 202 pounds), but he played alot bigger than that. He ran with a punishing aggressive style, often battering defensive players rather than being battered. While some of his contemporaries would often get their yardage and get out of bounds (notably Franco Harris), Payton would seek out contact and turn back into the field for an extra yard or two.
In his 13 seasons, Payton ran for over 1000 yards 10 times. (In fact, all 10 times, he was also over 1200 yards). His best season was in 1977, when Payton tallied 1852 yards (a career high) and 14 rushing touchdowns (tied for a career best). On November 20 of that year, Payton ran for an NFL record 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings (a mark which stood for more than 20 years, before Corey Dillon broke it in 2000).
He also was one of the best receiving running backs of his generation, with 492 career receptions for 4538 yards.
In 1985, Payton was a key part of the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, who went 15-1 in the regular season and smashed the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. In a game where just about everyone scored (even defensive player William "Refrigerator" Perry got a running touchdown), Payton did not. Coach Mike Ditka and teammates didn't realize it, and say it's one of their few regrets of one of the most dominant football teams ever. Still, he was a champion...and he sang and danced in the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Payton played in 9 Pro Bowls, ran for at least 100 yards in a game 77 times (still a record), and was the heart of the Chicago Bears for more than a decade.
He was active in charities and he founded the Walter Payton Foundation to help needy children.
In February 1999, Payton announced that he had a rare liver disease named primary sclerosing cholangitis and would need a transplant. Within the year, Payton was dead...of bile duct cancer found during treatment.
Payton's illness was shocking. To people of my father's generation (Payton's comtemporaries or slightly older), he was one of the great backs of their time. He always looked (and played) strong. His stamina and health throughout his career was notable, considering his aggressive style of play. And here he was in 1999, frail, weak, and almost helpless. It was a shock to many his age, who almost certainly were never in as good a shape as he was during his career...which ended just more than a decade earlier.
To my own generation (mid 20s right now), Payton was seen as a great back, but we only caught the tail-end of his great career. We'd hear people talk about how great he once was in a fashion that people in 2001 tell their kids about Tony Gwynn or Emmitt Smith in their primes. My main memory of Payton is that he was a pain to tackle in the NES video game Tecmo Bowl. And here he was, younger than my father, and very sick. It was stomach-turning.
And then he died. And everyone was shocked all over again. I think there was a general perception that Payton was going to get better...that he wasn't given a death sentence. Afterall, Magic Johnson had been living with HIV for nearly a decade at the time, and Muhammad Ali had been sick for about as long too. But he was gone, less than a year after his illness became public knowledge. And it was a shock to all sports fans' mortality...for both my father's generation and my own. We live through our sports heroes in this culture and are used to seeing them so strong and full of life. Walter Payton was gone at just 45, and it was a shock.
Walter Payton is remembered as a great running back, a great teammate, and by all accounts, a great person. His foundation helped thousands of poor children. His family formed the Walter Payton Cancer Fund in his name, to support cancer research.
His all-time rushing record was broken by Emmitt Smith, while his yards from scrimmage mark was broken by Jerry Rice (both in 2002).