It creeps up on me every year: last Wednesday was Walter Payton’s birthday, and that’s something I like to celebrate.
He would have been 58.
Walter was cut down far too early of a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis, which may have led to his cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). But it’s his birth, rather than his death, that I like to remember. Somehow, I will always recall Payton as a man in his prime, exuberantly full of life.
He was not the first great running back I ever saw. I’ve been watching football for over five decades now, and I’ve seen a lot of the great backs, including watching Gale Sayers at Wrigley Field when I was still small.
Back then, football was just discovering the power of television to capture viewers with new angles and shots. They were starting to follow the players who controlled the path of the ball, finding new perspectives to show the big hits and big plays, so running backs got an increasing amount of airtime. I watched so many great ones - Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson. More recently, I’ve gotten to enjoy the power and skill of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, LaDainian Tomlinson and countless others. Payton was perhaps the best of them all, and for far more reasons than just his running skills. They called him ‘Sweetness’, and he was every bit of that.
He was known as Sweetness not so much for his syrupy-smooth running style, as fitting as that may have been, but because of the way he treated people. The passion with which Walter cared about those around him was perhaps most simply portrayed by the fact that he would arrive at Bears headquarters and answer the phones midday, so that the secretaries could take a full lunch hour out of the office. He acted as if every person he encountered was precious to him, and wealth, status, or position meant nothing. He was, very simply, one of the most genuine people you could ever ask to meet. I have never met or heard of anyone who had a bad word to say about him.
Walter ran the ball in a unique, ‘take no prisoners’ style. He did not believe in running out of bounds, and a defensive player famously compared trying to tackle him to “hitting a concrete block” - his opponents commented that tackles often hurt the defender more than it did him. Walter’s conditioning secret has been used by many people since him: he had a hillside behind his home that he would run up, over and over again. Saying that he ran up that hill is very much like saying that Everest is a mountain - it's accurate, but it doesn't quite cover the situation.
Every player who came to run that hill with him soon ended up contributing their most recent digestate to fertilize the nearest shrubbery. Walter would tape his feet so that he was running that hill on the balls of them, and he would run up and down the slope for hours. His stamina was legendary. If Walter was running the ball in the fourth quarter, defenders knew they were in serious trouble. Stopping him was hard enough if you were fresh. Late in the game, it was nearly impossible. He rarely had much of a line, but that didn’t stop him. It didn’t even slow him down much. Walter was truly a rare talent.
Walter ran the ball in for touchdowns with a straight legged, kicking style. He wasn’t showing off. He had an entire team of professionals that included a kinesiologist, a physiologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a chiropractor, a physical therapist who specialized in knee rehabilitation, and a professional football trainer. Together with his position coach, they had determined that this style of running gave him the least chance to have an unexpected hit cause a knee injury.
Walter researched everything about his role on the team. His own team of experts determined that having arthroscopic cleanouts of his knee at certain intervals would extend his career, so he did so. As little was left to chance as possible. He trained incessantly, he absorbed knowledge voraciously, and he lived with a kind of devilishly innocent delight that defies words.
If you want to understand it, just watch the film of his play.
He could juke you out of your shoes or leave footprints on your jersey. Walter never gave less than all he had. I went down to Soldier Field time and again just to watch #34 play, and to marvel at what he could do. Even as you sat in the stands next to Lake Michigan with the hawk winds ripping at your face, braving the stadium's lousy sightlines, you already knew that you were seeing something timelessly unique. Payton had a style like no other. But it was his work in the community that truly set Payton apart.
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation still exists today. It continues to work in the name of him and his beloved wife, adding to the community and working for everyone within it. They sponsor projects to decorate the Brookfield Zoo, of which I had the pleasure of being a member. They have a toy drive for underprivileged children, help gather school supplies for children in need. They partner with companies such as Custom Co., a trucking and warehouse company that donates the trucks for their annual holiday gift drive for kids in the Department of Children and Family Services programs, and Leader Express, which generously donates warehouse space to WCPF and allows them to store, sort, and distribute donations throughout the year. They hold events that include bringing fans together to watch games and cheer their team. They’re all about people, and finding ways to help them.
Perhaps the most fitting of the legacies that Payton left is the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which was founded in 1970 and renamed for Walter in 1999, because he stood as the model for an athlete on and off the field. Administered by NFL Charities, it is unique among NFL honors because it is the only award that recognizes a current NFL player for outstanding community service activities as well as excellence on the field. Each NFL team nominates one candidate; the Broncos’ official site urges all of us to be champions in the community. Walter always was.
A man named Menkyo-Shihan (Licensed Master) Walter Barber was my professor for many years. He shared much of Payton’s approach to people, and one of the things he taught me was that you always made friends with the secretaries and receptionists everywhere - they frequently are the engines that run the world. Shihan Barber had been a Pan-American world games wrestler, a sergeant in the armed services, was the US Masters Class Heavyweight National Judo Champion five times, and he had a laugh like that of no one I've ever met. A black belt who trained under both of us once said that where some people have a spark in their eyes, Shihan Barber had blowtorches. It was true - Wally brought a zest to his life that was very much like Walter Payton's. To my delight, the two of them got to meet on two separate occasions.
Among other things Shihan Barber had taught middle school, high school, college, in the Armed Forces, and he taught unarmed search and restraint to police officers. In addition, he gave instruction in both martial arts and Oriental healing at every level you can imagine. At 6-3 and 240 lb, his wrists were bigger around than my ankles. Training under him required a love of effort, a lot of discipline, and an endless supply of muscle liniment. His favorite phrase was “It was beautiful!” I quickly learned that beauty has a price.
Back in the late 1970s, he was a sergeant in the South Barrington Police Department, when Sweetness had a comfortable estate in that Illinois township. Wally was working the night shift one pleasant evening and had set up a speed trap, not far from Payton’s home. Sweetness liked to drive very fast out on those rambling rural roads. When you have a township as rich as South Barrington, back in those days you didn't write tickets to the locals. Walter would just stop the owner of the vehicle, run the plate, and he'd know what he'd get when he approached the car. This time, the window slid down and one of Chicagoland's most famous grins peered out the plush interior.
Payton treated Barber like he treated everyone else. He wanted to know his name, greeted him as a friend, and sheepishly produced his driver’s license. He was sober, and was tendered a gentle suggestion to slow it down a bit for his own safety. He thanked Barber, wished him a good evening, and quietly drove off.
The following summer, Sgt. Barber received a call about a possible vandalism at Walter's house and took the call. He drove over with the Mars lights flashing (but no siren, so as to not disturb the resident homeowners), pulled into the drive, and walked around to the back. The land was still quite rural back then, and at the far end of a lush lawn, Sweetness, accompanied by one of his offensive linemen, stood under a group of trees about 300 feet from the house. They had expensive compound bows in their hands and blunt-tipped arrows in quiver stands beside them. They were having a contest to see who could take out more windows. Inevitably, it was Walter’s idea.
“Nobody’s home, and I already called the glass company,” explained Payton. “They’re coming by in about an hour.” Sgt. Barber managed to keep a straight face for about three seconds before bursting out laughing. After a moment, Peyton and his lineman joined in. Barber told that story for years.
That was the joy with which Sweetness approached life. It didn’t occur to him not to try doing that, simply because he could. That was also how he ran the ball. It was obvious in how he played, how he approached each aspect of the game, and how he drew everyone around him into his celebration of life. It was Sweetness. What else could you say?
It’s always a fun debate when you talk about who would be the best running back of all time. For my money? It’s a simple choice. There was something about that man that you couldn’t help but love.
Rest well, old friend. You are deeply missed.