On the day we’re looked down upon and graced with our beloved NFL back, we have to remember the person who transformed the identity of the running back position and the entire sport: Walter “Sweetness” Payton.
Today would have been Payton’s 57th birthday, but his life was taken by an autoimmune disease that led to cancer. Fresh out of Jackson State, he was the Chicago Bears’ No. 4 pick in the first round of the 1975 NFL draft. He quickly became an icon in Chicago, replacing the great Gale Sayers at the running back position after Sayers suffered injuries that forced him to retirement in 1971.
Payton’s first season with the Bears was a disappointing one. His numbers were the lowest of his career, racking up only 679 yards and seven touchdowns but the rest of his career left no room for doubt. Payton went on to run 16,726 yards on 3,838 carries in his career and 21,803 all-purpose yards. He was a nine-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, six-time first team all-pro selection, MVP in the 1977 season (he’s the only Chicago Bear to be named MVP) and led the team to a 1985 Super Bowl championship.
Payton joined the Chicago Bears Board of Directors in 1988, one season after he retired, and began spending more time with his family. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1993, introduced by his son Jarrett who would later entertain offers from colleges to play football. The family was set to announce what school he would go to, but instead were forced to make an announcement in February of 1999 that would change the family’s life.
Walter Payton announced that he had a rare autoimmune liver disease which may have led to cancer. He spent the next months as an advocate for organ transplants, encouraging others to donate organs through commercials but his condition was too far along to receive a transplant. Payton made one last public appearance at Wrigley Field in April of 1999 to throw out the first pitch, but died in November from complications that arose from his illness.
Payton is remembered as one of the greatest football players of all-time, voted No. 5 by NFL.com, and his push for organ donation has caused donations to skyrocket in Illinois. His legacy lives through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which among other things, donates toys to underprivileged kids around Christmas. Payton is not only remembered as an athlete, but also a humanitarian.
Video highlights of Payton’s career below.