You might think that a man called “Sweetness” isn’t that tough. In Walter Payton’s case you’d been wrong. The man, who once held NFL records in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, rushing attempts, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards, was anything BUT sweet on the football field.
Payton’s motto was “Never Die Easy”. His coach at Jackson State taught ball carriers to refuse to run out of bounds to avoid being hit. Instead, you deliver a little “Sweetness” to would-be tacklers and let them drive you out of bounds, if they can.
As incredible a player as Payton turned out to be, he didn’t even play football until his junior year in high school. It was said that Walter didn’t want to compete with his older brother, Eddie, who was the star of the team. (Eddie also played in the NFL) And even after Eddie left, playing on the team was no guarantee. Payton made the coach promise to let him continue playing drums in the high school band.
That year Payton attended John J. Jefferson School. The next year he attended Columbia High School. Why the change? Columbia, Mississippi officially ended segregation in 1971.
Some were still unhappy about the arrangement, but Payton led the team to an 8-2 record. The best in school history and winning changed some attitudes.
Despite great promise Payton received no scholarship offers from any southern conference universities. In one of his books, Payton said those schools did not recruit very many black players. Payton ended up attending Jackson State, in Jackson Mississippi. He played with future NFL’ers Jerome Barkum, Robert Brazile and Jackie Slater.
Walter wore out the league. Payton rushed for more than 3,500 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
He also rushed for 65 touchdowns, and set an NCAA record.
In 1975, Payton graduated from Jackson State with a B.A. in Communications.
What big colleges had missed out on, back in the early ‘70’s, the NFL would not. The Chicago Bears took Payton with the fourth overall pick. (Robert Brazile was taken two picks later what a team that must have been) Payton’s first year on a bad team wasn’t that productive. He rushed for 679 on 196 attempts.
In 1976, Payton wrote a completely different story. Payton rushed for more than 1,000 years and scored 17 touchdowns. His durability would be his trademark. Payton took a handoff a league leading 311 times. Payton made the pro bowl and was first team all-pro that year.
But 1977 was Payton’s breakout year.
He led the league in attempts (339), rushing yards (1852), rushing TD’s (14), yards per rushing attempt, (5.5), and rushing yards per game (132.3). Payton was also the NFL Offensive Player of the year, and the NFL Associated Press MVP.
As usual with a great player the stats don’t always tell the whole story. In addition to “Never Die Easy,”
Payton had style. (I’m not just talking about the time he finished 2nd in the Soul Train dance contest)
He used a high-kick stutter step he when it appeared he was cornered. Payton would slow as he approached the tackle trap, and one of his legs would extent at a right angle to his body. Walter was setting up his prey for a, ‘jock leaving behind’ juke. Usually, the defense looks at ball carriers as prey, with Payton and his never die easy attitude, he was the lioness. (The King of the jungle doesn’t hunt, the Queen does)
In a book published posthumously titled Never Die Easy, Payton called his set-up a stutter step. Once the defender committed to an angle based on Walter’s step, he would simply move in the other direction.
Payton’s crowning achievement with the Bears was winning Super Bowl XXIV over the New England Patriots. The team also made, what is believed to be, the first music video called “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” The victory came in the twilight his career, as 1987 was his last in the NFL.
Almost immediately following football, Payton parleyed his brand into a number of different business ventures. He became co-owner of Dale Coyne Racing of the IndyCar World Series, and actually drove in several Trans-Am events. Payton and several business partners bought a string of restaurants that became known as Walter Payton’s roadhouse.
The end came too soon for “Sweetness.”
In 1999, Payton announced he had a rare liver disease. He died in November of that year. His announcement ended months of speculation about Payton’s health. In the months leading up to the disclosure, Payton had experienced a dramatic decline in weight.
But in death, Payton was able to have a positive impact on the local organ donor program. Even though his disease could not be cured with a liver transplant, Payton spent the last few months of his life advocating for organ donation.
In response, the City of Chicago inserted organ donation requests into city-vehicle-registration mailings in early 2000, and, by August 2000, 13,000 people had signed on to the program.
Walter Payton was an inspiration in life and in death. There are conflicting stories about why Walter Payton was nicknamed “Sweetness,” but now most of us might agree the reason was his giving nature.