It’s officially been 23 years since he passed!
He was born Walter Jerry Payton on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi, Biography.com reports. He earned the nickname “Sweetness” and was revered for his football skills and charismatic personality at a young age. His generosity was seen at a young age and Payton’s good-hearted nature followed him all the way to college.
He first came to prominence as a halfback at Jackson State University, starting as a freshman in 1971. He was subsequently selected for the All-American team and named Black College Player of the Year in both 1973 and 1974. During his time at Jackson State, Payton rushed for over 3,500 yards and racked up more than 450 points. Off the field, he gave back to the community while studying education and working with those who were deaf.
Payton is best known for his time with the Chicago Bears. According to the Bleacher Report, it is Payton who sparked the Bears franchise revival. He was drafted to the team in 1975 and prior to Payton, the Bears had not had a winning season for seven years. Just two years after Payton joined the team, in 1977, the Bears made the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. That same year, he rushed for a single-game record of 275 yards and finished the season recognized as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
In 1979, the Bears would make the playoffs again, but it would be five more years before they had another winning streak. Payton spent years as the face of the team, and they heavily relied on him. The Bears regained their stride in 1984, winning their first division title since 1963 with a victory against the Washington Redskins during the playoffs. The Bears once again headed to the championship games.
He became known for his speed and power, earning nine Pro Bowl selections over the course of his career and a Super Bowl Ring in 1986 when the Bears defeated the New England Patriots. Payton retired in 1987, holding a career rushing record of 16,726 yards. He became widely known as one of the greatest running backs of all time.
Off the field, Payton found success in several business ventures, exploring real estate, restaurant ownership and race cars. Payton was the owner of several successful Chicago nightclubs and became an owner of the Dale Coyne CART racing team. During the 1990s, he hosted a weekly radio show and was one of the most loved and respected Chicago athletes ever.
He also established the Walter Payton Foundation where he made it his business to continue his charitable work. Payton received numerous accolades for his contributions to the NFL, earning a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1993 and a College Football Hall of Fame induction in 1996.
In early 1999, Payton revealed that he had been diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, also known as bile duct cancer; he used his platform to raise awareness about the rare disease. On November 1, 1999, Payton passed away at the age of 45 to the shock of fans and peers. His public funeral was held at Soldier Field, and his private memorial was attended by more than 1,000 people. Payton was survived by his wife Connie and two children, Jarrett and Brittney.
Today, the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation is still committed to its mission of serving children and veterans. In remembrance and homage of Payton and his many accomplishments, here are 5 must-see highlights of the best running back in NFL history:
The Best Running Back Of All Time
The Early Years: 1975-1979
The Later Years: 1980-1987
NOBODY Does It Better
A Life Well Lived: ESPN Tribute
Blessings to the spirit and legacy of the late, great, Walter Payton.
Remembering Walter Payton: 5 must-see highlights of the best running back in NFL history. Photo Courtesy of John Iacono/Sports Illustrated