Walter Payton is, was and forever shall be the heart of the Chicago Bears. In a world where hard work, determination and being part of a team has fallen out of fashion somehow, the man known as “sweetness” can be pointed out as to what a work ethic truly should be all about. It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since Payton lost his fight with a rare liver disease.
Payton played his entire career for the Bears and even at the height of his popularity, was never involved in holding out for more money or adjusting the shine of the spotlight on himself. Quite the opposite, in fact. During the SuperBowl when the 1985 Chicago won the championship, Payton never actually scored during the lop-sided game. In a short yardage situation, coach Mike Ditka gave the ball to William “the refrigerator” Perry to score. Although many long-time fans took exception to this, Payton never whined or complained. For Payton, the team always came first.
Payton’s football style was a joy to behold, his “never say die” attitude while playing the running back position inspired many of today’s players, Payton refusing to simply run out-of-bounds with the ball or smashing into a defender trying to bring 5’10 phenomenon to the ground. In fact, I’ve always believed this hard running style may have also been what contributed to Payton’s early death, although reports by NIOSH report that players in the NFL are at no greater risk for an early death than any other occupation. One thing is for sure, 300 pound men smashing into someone at full force can’t be good for the body.
Even Payton’s widow, Connie, is still open to the option that Walter may have suffered brain trauma from his playing days. In an interview with WLS-channel 7 in Chicago, the widow confessed that Walter had indeed had discussed suicide and being a firearms owner, had the means to do so. This was well before extensive studies on CTE brought on by concussions had been a factor. Payton may well have a brain injury similar to that of former player Junior Seau, who did commit suicide in 2012.
Before his death, Payton became a high-profile advocate for organ donation, even though that cause would not save his life, his condition far too along to be corrected. Chicago responded with a boom in organ donation taking place right after Payton passed on November 1, 1999. He was not a perfect person by far, as none of us are. He had his share of personal issues off the field, but Payton can be looked at as a man who never let the cameras and fame get to him. He was respected and loved by a city that even in its darkest times, could still be a light for Chicago. He was indeed, “sweetness”.
Many continue to argue if Walter Payton was one of if not the best running back the NFL has employed, even fifteen years after the man’s passing. He was a champion, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his legacy will always be remembered by fans.
However, after all the records, the high-stepping along the sidelines and even his infectious smile, my most prominent Walter Payton memory is the day he passed. It rained all day in Chicago as every sports radio station in the city alerted listeners, “sweetness is gone”.
Thank you, #34.