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Walter Payton




James Loving - National Radio Text Service


You can measure the greatness of a man by his achievements. You can also measure a mans greatness by the good feelings and thoughts you may have of that person. Do those thoughts give you energy or… taketh away?


Friday November 5, 1999

Remembering Walter Payton gives me a good feeling bundled with positive energy. It's amazing how a few positive moments with someone can stay with you throughout your life.

The size of Walter Payton's heart made up for the lack of size of his body. He had guts of steel. He believed and achieved and remained humble.

Payton is the NFL's all-time career rushing leader with 16,726 yards. He was the league MVP twice. The NFL Hall of Fame member was also a champion, having been a member of the Chicago Bears 1985 Super Bowl team. He passed away Monday November 1, 1999 from bile duct cancer. He was only 45 years of age. Remembering Payton brings to mind his fighting spirit. He had a strong will to win and achieve.

"He set a standard for going all out," said Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green. "He wasn't as big as some of your other running backs that play the game but he could outwork anybody and he always gave 100 percent. And that was 100 percent to his family, his friends, to the game of football."

Payton didn't attend a major college football powerhouse in the United States. He rose to the top of the game after matriculating at Jackson State University a small black school in Mississippi. At 5'10" and 202 pounds he was a small man, by NFL standards. He played a big IN YOUR FACE RUN AT YOU type of game… and he played it hard.

I never interviewed Payton during his playing days. He retired from the football in 1987 two years before my sports journalism career began.

I met Payton after NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's Super Bowl press conference speech in Minneapolis in January 1992. At the time Payton was trying to kindle interest for a NFL expansion franchise for the city of St. Louis.

My recollection of Payton was that he was sharp, bright and articulate. He was very much to the point. He didn't try to dazzle you with bull$#!t or seek out a clever sound bite and make gestures to the TV cameras. He wasn't Mr. Show Business or Showtime…he was DOWN TO EARTH. He thought with his mind and spoke from his heart.

When I approached him to request the interview he looked me straight in the eye. He had a bright smile and was very polite and cordial. This took me aback. I had never met an athlete who had achieved so much in his career who was so considerate and modest and well spoken. The 13-year NFL pro accorded people respect. It wasn't an effort…it was just THE WAY HE WAS.

Yes, it's difficult to judge someone's character after just a few minutes. But…. My feelings proved to be right after reading so many positive statements regarding his integrity from those who knew him well.

Tagliabue said, "Walter was an inspiration in everything he did. The tremendous dignity he displayed in his final months reminded us again why "Sweetness" was the perfect nickname for Walter Payton. He was without a doubt one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Walter exemplified class and all of us in sports should honor him by striving to perpetuate his standard of excellence."

New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka coached Payton for six seasons including the Super Bowl Championship team. "He was the best football player I ever seen and one of the best people I ever met," Ditka said.

From the time I interviewed Payton I often wondered how he was doing. His group failed to obtain the NFL franchise, the Los Angeles Rams eventually moved to St. Louis. I hadn't heard much about him until the announcement of his sickness this past February. Like many others I was shocked to find that a disease could overcome such a strong man. More surprising was how it took him down so quickly.

After his death I thought about that interview but couldn't quite remember what it was about. I searched for the tape. Surprisingly it was one of the tapes that survived a trashing and a loss of many tapes in my audio library by Korean Airlines personnel. When I discovered the tape I felt lucky. I felt as if I had found a treasure.

The interview was focused primarily on his efforts to obtain the expansion franchise. When I asked him what success did he have in his football playing career that stood out in his mind he replied, "It has nothing to do with football but it was during my football career and that was fathering my two kids (Jarrett and Brittney)."

His modesty was obvious but I pressed on for him to address his most memorable moment in his football-playing career. He then replied, "The ONLY game that really stands out was when I went over 10,000 yards because that was on my sons birthday." Ironically that feat was achieved against the Rams.

Thinking family over football was Payton's way. His son is a freshman at the University of Miami and a member of the football team.

The size of Payton's heart made up for the lack of size in his body. He had guts of steel. He believed and achieved and remained humble.

Getting Payton to talk about himself was like trying to extract an impacted wisdom tooth without pain. But I wanted to know his thoughts about his most memorable moment in sports. Sooo… I pressed on for the answer.

It wasn't like I was doing a Jim Gray interview trying to assault a man's character I was trying to gain some POSITIVE INFORMATION of what THIS MAN THINKS of his INCREDIBLE career. I was going for some POSITIVE YARDS, as they say in American football speak.

Finally…. Payton gave me what I wanted…. the answer that I was looking for. His toughness and come at you playing attitude came out with his answer as he recounted the play that enabled him to reach his memorable 10,000-yard milestone.

"It was an up the middle play on which I broke outside. One guy hit me and bounced off (after) about five yards. After I picked up another five yards, him and two other guys ended up on bringing me down."

It was difficult to bring Walter Payton down on the football field. It will be difficult to bring him down in life (in the minds of many). Though he is no longer physically with us on this earth he will be fondly remembered by the many people that he brought joy to in their lives. He did that for me. He will be GREATLY MISSED physically BUT… NOT IN MIND….. NOR IN SPIRIT..

Important records and milestones in the career of Walter Payton:

NFL records Rushing

  • Yards, career -- 16,726.
  • Attempts, career -- 3,838.
  • Yards gained, game -- 275, vs. Minnesota, Nov. 20, 1977.
  • Seasons with 1,000 or more yards -- 10, 1976-81, 1983-86.
  • Consecutive seasons leading league, attempts -- 4, 1976-79.
  • Most games, 100 or more yards, career -- 77.

Combined net yards (Rushing, pass receiving and return yardage)

  • Yards, career -- 21,803.
  • Attempts, career -- 4,368.

NFL rankings

  • Most seasons leading league, attempts -- 4, 1976-79, tied second.
  • Consecutive games, 100 or more yards -- 9, 1985, third.
  • Most rushing touchdowns, career -- 110, third.
  • Most games, 200 or more yards, season -- 2, 1977, tied third.
  • Most total touchdowns, career -- 125, fifth.


  • 2,000 combined net yards, season -- 4, 1977, 1983-85.
  • Years led the NFL in rushing -- 1, 1977.
  • Years led the NFC in rushing -- 5, 1976-80.
  • Broke Jim Brown's NFL all-time career rushing mark of 12,312 yards -- at Chicago, Oct. 7, 1984.
  • Broke Jim Brown's NFL all-time career mark of 58 100-yard rushing games -- at Chicago, Oct. 7, 1984.
  • Broke Franco Harris' NFL all-time career mark of 2,949 rushing attempts -- at Minnesota, Nov. 25, 1984.
  • Broke Franco Harris' NFL all-time career mark of eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons -- Nov. 17, 1985, at Dallas.
  • First 100-yard game -- Nov. 16, 1975, at San Francisco, 23 carries, 105 yards.
  • First 200-yard game -- Oct. 30, 1977, at Green Bay, 23 carries, 205 yards.
  • First 1,000-yard season -- 1976, 311 attempts, 1,390 yards.
  • Pro Bowl Selection -- (nine times) 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986.
  • AP Most Valuable Player -- 1977.
  • AP All-Pro Team -- (five times) 1976, 1977, 1984, 1985, 1986.
  • AP Offensive Player of the Year -- 1977.
  • PFWA Most Valuable Player -- 1977.
  • PFWA All-league selection -- (four times) 1976, 1977, 1978, 1984.
  • First-round draft selection (4th overall) -- 1975.

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