Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sweet sorrow

I noticed on Twitter that Walter Payton passed away on this day in 1999. I remember that very well, because the City Editor turned to me and told me to write his obituary. I almost laughed out loud: I knew NOTHING about Walter Payton. I had attended exactly one Bears game. 
    But I was nothing if not a quick study. And Mark Brown must have helped me fill in the gaps, because on Nexis he is listed as co-author of the following, though I couldn't point out what parts are his and what parts are mine. The top certainly is mine, because I remember puzzling how to begin the thing, then deciding, "Start with the obvious and work from there." 

     The man could run.
     Everything else -- the fame, the money, the NFL records, the Super Bowl ring, the bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- flowed from that essential fact. Walter Payton ran beautifully, with power, grace, intelligence and a certain poetry that left onlookers amazed and hulking linemen grabbing at thin air.
     He died shortly past noon Monday at his South Barrington home after a yearlong battle with a disease from which he could not run. Until the end, he kept the seriousness of his condition a secret, a fact that left many of his fans grasping for answers like those stunned defenders.
     Mr. Payton, 45, was felled by bile duct cancer, said Dr. Greg Gores of the Mayo Clinic. In February, Payton had disclosed he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease, and needed a transplant.
     Former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary said he visited Mr. Payton at home Monday morning and prayed aloud with him at his bedside.
     "There was definitely a peace there I had not seen all year," Singletary said.
     Mr. Payton's son, Jarrett, a freshman running back at the University of Miami, appeared at Halas Hall to read a statement on the family's behalf, concluding with thanks to the people of Chicago.
     "You adopted my dad and made him yours. He loved you all. You have made this our home. We are proud to be among you," said Jarrett Payton, who remained composed during his statement and left without answering questions.
     Mr. Payton was the NFL's all-time leading rusher. His lifetime total (16,726 yards) is nearly a mile more than the career total of Barry Sanders, the former Detroit Lions star who ranks second on the list with 15,269. He covered every last inch as a Bear, from 1975 to 1987, and played on the Bears' victorious Super Bowl XX team. In a sport rife with devastating injury, Mr. Payton came away nearly unscathed: In 13 seasons, he missed just one game, over his objections.
     "He was the best football player I've ever seen, and probably one of the best people I've ever met," former Bears coach Mike Ditka said.
     Mr. Payton, who only revealed his liver illness after being stung by cruel rumors concerning his obvious weight loss, stayed mostly out of public view afterward.
     The disease, the cause of which is unknown, left him increasingly debilitated. After he appeared at Wrigley Field in April and threw out the first ball at the Cubs' home opener, Mr. Payton was so drained he had to cancel a speech the next day.
     This was a man who, not too many years before, could walk the width of a football field on his hands and bench press 390 pounds. Mr. Payton was famous for his fitness. His workout routines were grueling -- running up sandy embankments, shoveling dirt in the hot sun. He had half the body fat of an average fit man. His conditioning helped keep him from injury -- by running on his toes, he didn't plant his feet as much, reducing the punishment delivered by tackles.
     They called him "Sweetness" in college, because of his sweet running style, but like so much about Walter Payton, his nickname was deceptive. "From the start it was a misnomer," Sports Illustrated wrote in 1984. "He could fake and juke with the best, but what he really liked to do was run over people. 'Toughness' would have fit better. Opponents accused him more than once of actually going out of his way, of avoiding the open field or maybe even slowing down, just to take another shot at a defender. Payton admits he has done that."     
     Mr. Payton is credited with reviving the use of the stiff-arm, which had fallen from favor.  
     His teammates loved him.
     "He's a good, down-to-earth person, a humble person by nature," close friend and former Bears fullback Matt Suhey said in 1984. "He's very appreciative of the people around him. He doesn't want anybody to dislike him, and I don't think there's one guy on the team who does."
     But like many celebrities, Mr. Payton also was a person of contrasts: He was a savvy businessman whose techniques -- depending on one's point of view -- could be aggressive or grasping, visionary or over-reaching. He announced many business goals -- purchasing an NFL team, for instance -- that never came to fruition.
     Mr. Payton also loved pranks.
     "Firecrackers would go off in the middle of the night when we were all asleep," recalled former Bear running back Roland Harper, who was Mr. Payton's roommate on the road. "Walter would always say it wasn't him. But we knew, we knew."
     He was the most famous athlete in Chicago for a decade -- Chicago's adulation serving as a practice run for the arrival of Michael Jordan, in many ways his successor.
     "Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there," Jordan said in a statement from his office. "He was a great man off the field, and his on the field accomplishments speak for themselves."
     Yet Mr. Payton also guarded his privacy, to the point of shyness. He moved his family to a five-acre compound in South Barrington to keep them away from prying fans, who nevertheless sometimes appeared on his doorstep. Mr. Payton was invariably polite in sending them away.
     Like Jordan, Mr. Payton was a fierce, driven competitor who hated to lose at anything, whether it was football or foosball. When he sprained his ankle on the last game of the 1976 season, losing a chance to catch O.J. Simpson in the race for the NFL rushing title, Mr. Payton was carried from the field weeping.
     He could be emotional. Mr. Payton did not always present the smiling facade of the hero. He had a tendency to complain. Before he was elected to the Hall of Fame, he announced that he might not accept the honor -- several players he felt should be in the hall were not. Immediately after his election, he demanded to know if the vote was unanimous because it would "bother" him if it wasn't.
     Despite such outbursts, he was generally modest; when the praise turned to him, he made a point to always pass it around.
      "Football is a team game," he said, upon his induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1993. "And it takes everyone on that team to make a product such as these Hall of Famers."
     He was born Walter Jerry Payton in Columbia, Miss., on July 25, 1954, the youngest of three children of Alyne, a dietician, and Peter Payton, a factory maintenance worker. He remained close to his Southern roots -- he enjoyed hunting and fishing, and was often described by sportswriters as "blue collar."
     Mr. Payton didn't start playing football until his junior year at Columbia High School, when he transferred over with other students from the all-black Jefferson High School. His coach, Charles Boston, credited Mr. Payton's performance in the opening game of the 1970 season -- he sped to two long touchdowns to beat rival Prentiss -- as helping to smooth over those troubled times.
     "That did it for integration," Boston said. "The people didn't see a black boy running down the field. They saw a Columbia High Wildcat."
     At Jackson State University, Mr. Payton led NCAA Division II in football scoring with 464 points, the most in NCAA history. He was Football Roundup College Player of the Year in 1974, and sportswriters felt he would have won the Heisman Trophy if he had attended a bigger school and not a small, all-black college.
     Mr. Payton's moves at times reflected the grace of dance for a good reason: He was a dancer and, as with everything, worked hard at his technique. As a sophomore at Jackson State, Mr. Payton entered a "Soul Train" televised dance contest. He came in second.
     He graduated with a B.A. in special education, and had a lifelong fondness for children -- he had a standing order at the Bears' front office to be notified if there was something involving children that needed doing. His cherished Super Bowl ring disappeared after he loaned it to a suburban high school to motivate its championship-bound team.
     The Bears made Mr. Payton their first-round pick in the 1975 draft. In his first game, he had eight carries for zero yards. He rushed for just 679 yards on the season.
     Other than the strike-shortened 1982 season and his final year, he never again rushed for less than 1,000 yards, a benchmark of greatness for professional running backs.
     Records began to fall before him like so many bowled-over defenders.
     On Nov. 20, 1977, Mr. Payton, battling the flu, rushed for 275 yards -- the most ever by a player in a single game -- and scored the only touchdown in a 10-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field.
     "Maybe later it will mean something, in three or four years or so, after I'm out of football," he said in the locker room. "Right now, it's just another game."
     Another great moment came on Oct. 7, 1984, when he passed Jim Brown's all-time rushing record of 12,312 yards. His teammates mobbed him. Play was interrupted for three minutes. The ball was plucked away and dispatched to the Hall of Fame. President Reagan phoned from Air Force One. When Mr. Payton said to give his regards to Nancy, the president put her on the line.
     Mr. Payton was noted for his versatility. He not only ran well, but caught passes, threw devastating blocks, could punt like a first-stringer and was once put in as quarterback.
     Part of the legend of Mr. Payton's imperviousness to injury came through his ability to play through pain. In the last game of the 1983 season, he carried the ball 148 yards despite several cracked ribs.
     "It's a mental thing you have to deal with," he said.
     Mr. Payton played a key role in the Bear's championship 1985 season. There was controversy over Ditka's decision, with the Bears up 37-3 late in Super Bowl XX, to tap 310-pound defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry for the one-yard carry for a touchdown, instead of giving Mr. Payton what would have been his only Super Bowl score. Mr. Payton spoke bitterly about it, in both public and private.
     After he retired in 1987, the Bears retired his jersey, No. 34.
     In the years since his retirement, Mr. Payton became known as a businessman, owning nightclubs, restaurants, and other establishments. He was the first African-American owner of an Indy race car.
     As recently as July he purchased a minority share in the expansion Arena Football League team that will play in Rosemont in 2001.
     When Mr. Payton was approaching Brown's revered rushing record, he was asked about the importance of statistics. He said the rushing record might be one of his bragging rights someday.
     "You know how guys are when they get old," he said, quickly pointing out that broken records won't be the most important memory of his playing career.
     "The things I've gained personally from these people," he said. "The love and friendship that I've obtained, it means more than any numbers could ever say."
     Survivors include his wife, Connie, son Jarrett and daughter Brittney. Services will be private at the family's request.
     A committee has been established to work with the city on a tribute at Soldier Field sometime next week.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 2, 1999


  1. My spouse remembers that game in Nov. 20 of '77. It was his 18th bday. I will show him this piece.

    Payton was an amazing athlete and it's a shame about his early demise.

  2. Payton may have achieved an unreachable rushing record had he not played so many of his games on artificial turf.

  3. I sadly remember Mayor Daley's brother John screwing up his speech at Soldier Field during Payton's jersey retirement when he proclaimed "Number 33 was a team player." Seriously, you can't even get the dead mans number correct?

  4. The Daleys are despicable.

  5. Regarding versatility, I remember Coach Jack Pardee's comment that Walter Payton always made the tackle on an interception.


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