He was affectionately known as “Sweetness” and is, arguably, the greatest running back in National Football League history. Walter Payton was the number one pick for the Chicago Bears in the 1975 NFL draft and the fourth college player chosen overall that year. He was born on July 25, 1954 and was raised in Mississippi. He attended Jackson State University located in Jackson, Mississippi. He was a communications major but his real talent and love was for football where he gained the national acclaim that comes so rarely to an outstanding player attending a small university. Remarkable, still, was that in his senior year in 1974, he ended up fourth in the balloting for the prestigious Heisman Trophy which is annually awarded to the country’s finest college football player.
He came to the struggling Chicago Bears and had an immediate impact not only on Chicago but throughout the league. Though considered small at 5’10” and two hundred pounds, he ran with immense power and his speed and agility constantly disrupted defenses. His nickname derived from his profound humility but his mental and physical toughness is what propelled him to elite status. In 1977, he set an NFL record by carrying the ball 40 times and rushing for 275 yards against Chicago’s bitter rival, the Minnesota Vikings. He accomplished that feat by being severely hampered by the flu virus and the record stood until 2001.
Finally, after years of struggle, the Bears won their first Super Bowl in 1985. They crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10, to cap off a remarkable 15-1 season in which Payton and the Bear’s defense was the scourge of the league.
Payton retired in 1987 after 13 years in the league. At his retirement, he had rushed for an NFL record 16,726 yards. It took until 2002 for his mark to be surpassed by Emmitt Smith. Payton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 1993.
Payton remained active in the community and his Walter Payton Foundation helped many a cause. In the late 1990’s however, his health began to deteriorate. Payton died on November 1, 1999 from severe complications from liver disease that had led to cancer.
He remains, to this day, one of the greatest players in NFL history and a most beloved sports hero to the city of Chicago and beyond.