Growing up as a Green Bay Packers fan, it was hard to watch the brilliance of the mid-Eighties Chicago Bears team. It was harder not to be impressed by them. In those days, a mediocre Packers team was routinely brushed aside twice a season by the Bears' punishing defense and high-scoring offense. William "The Refrigerator" Perry, Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon and Richard Dent became household names. In a dazzling array of talent, the light shining brightest was a 5'10", 200lb running back named Walter Payton.
If the majority of some questionable birth records are to be believed, it would have been Walter Payton's 70th birthday last Thursday. Tragically, he lived just 46 years, dying due to complications from his battle with bile duct cancer in November 1999. While his NFL career remains fresh in the memory of many fans, he really came to the nation's attention at the HBCU (Historically Black College or University) school Jackson State University, where his achievements are less well known, but deserve to be highlighted in their own right.
Growing up in Columbia, Mississippi, Payton took his first steps, or rather ran his first yards, at Columbia High School, following in his older brother Eddie's footsteps. Columbia integrated with John J. Jefferson High School and it was here that Payton's emerging talent saw him make the all-state team.
Withdrawing a previous commitment to attend Kansas State, Walter Payton followed brother Eddie to local Jackson State University. He immediately made an impact as a freshman, earning a starting spot in the 1971 season and going on to have quite an extraordinary career for the Tigers, leading the nation in scoring for three out of his four years of college football.
Jackson State finished 9-1-1 in Payton's freshman season. In Jeff Pearlman's superb book "Sweetness", Payton's coach Bob Hill is quoted as saying "Walter spent his first year showing us how good he could be, and the next three years turning into a legend."
The game that put NFL scouts on notice took place in Payton's sophomore year on 23rd September 1972 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, where Jackson State faced city rivals Lane College. In a quite extraordinary performance, Payton ran for a school record 279 yards, scoring seven touchdowns and kicking four extra points, recording 46 individual points.
"If Walter Payton tiptoed cautiously toward his freshman year of college, he barged in, shoulder first, as a sophomore." - Jeff Pearlman in "Sweetness".
He would run for 1,139 yards in his junior year, scoring 24 touchdowns and a further 19 in his senior year, amassing 1,029 yards. Payton finished his career with the Jackson State Tigers, having rushed for 3,600 yards, averaging an impressive 6.1 yards per carry, an astonishing number for a running back. He set the school record with 63 career rushing touchdowns. As if his feet didn't produce enough talent, they also kicked five field goals and 53 extra points in his four-year college football career. Payton was named a three-time Black College All-American and two-time FCS All-American. Jackson State would win the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) title in 1972 and 1973.
There doesn't appear to be a definitive origin to the nickname that attached itself to Walter Payton through his hallowed career. His engaging, bright personality is rumoured to be one possibility. Equally it could have been attributed, ironically, to his hard-hitting, no-nonsense running style. At 5'10", Payton packed quite the punch. Under the tutelage of Bob Hill, he adopted his trademark hand off, often leading to his swollen left arm being drained of fluid after a game ferociously fending off opposing linebackers.
Legend has it that, having shrugged off a tackle from a team mate in practice, Payton is said to have looked back over his shoulder and yelled "your sweetness is your weakness", and the nickname was born.
The NFL and Chicago Bears
Despite playing for a smaller school in the second tier of college football, NFL scouts loved Payton's highlight-reel plays and strong-armed running. Dallas Cowboys considered taking him at No.2, but selected future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White, Payton was selected with the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Bears, who saw him as the ideal replacement for the legendary Gale Sayers, who had retired three years earlier.
It was an inspired selection. Payton will go down in history as one of the greatest ever to play the game. In a thirteen-year professional career, he earned nine trips to the Pro Bowl, the 1977 NFL MVP award when he led the league in rushing yards (1,852) and touchdowns (16) and a Super Bowl ring in 1986, where his Chicago Bears destroyed the New England Patriots 46-10. He ended his illustrious career with 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns and 21,264 all-purpose (rushing and receiving) yards, all NFL records at the time of his retirement after a post season loss to the Washington Redskins on January 10th, 1988.
Walter Payton was indicted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. His legacy is immense. His charitable foundations continue to help those less fortunate and there are numerous tributes to him. The city of Chicago named a school, Walter Payton College Prep, after him, and US Route 34 in Illinois was renamed the Walter Payton Memorial Highway by the state government. The NCAA awards the "Walter Payton Award" to the best offensive player from a Division 1 FCS football team. Most fittingly perhaps, the "Walter Payton Man of the Year" was named in his honour by the NFL and given annually to the player who has demonstrated the highest level of philanthropy in service to the community. Recent winners have included Dak Prescott, Andrew Whitworth and J.J. Watt.
Walter Payton lived the fullest of lives in his all too brief 46 years. Despite being the star of the team that rivalled the team I followed, he was a huge reason I became so absorbed in the NFL, and later, college football. You simply couldn't take your eyes off him. He was a highlight waiting to happen. In an article in the New York Times on 11th January 1988, the day after Payton's last game, Dave Anderson wrote the perfect concluding statement:
"Walter Payton is the yardstick by which all N.F.L. running backs will be measured."