Walter Payton’s signature move, leap over the pile. Courtesy/Getty Images
Originally Written on 08/06/13
Sweetness. The term is used to describe the taste of food that is rich and a pleasurable experience. To me, sweetness best describes quick feet, power and jaw dropping moves of a 5’10” 200lbs running back by the name of Walter Payton. To watch him was also a pleasurable experience. Just ask those who played with and against him, as well as watched him in the 70s to late 80s.
One of Payton’s peers and former St. Louis Cardinals Running Back, John Roland said, “When God created a running back he created Walter Payton.” Matt Millen, former NFL All Pro linebacker and current ESPN Analyst said “you felt honored to tackle him.” High praise, and that’s from one of the guys whose job every Sunday was to stop Sweetness from being, well, Sweetness.
I’m amazed that when discussions of best running back of all time comes up, it takes a few seconds for the Walter Payton’s name to be mentioned after Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and even some backs from the 1990s like Marshall Faulk. If you were fortunate enough to see Walter play, you would know he not only deserves to be in the discussion, but arguably should be in the top two.
Sweetness finished his career as the NFL’s All Time Leading Rusher with 16,726 yards on 4.4 yards per carry and 110 touchdowns, but he was more than a runner. Payton added 4,538 yards receiving on 9.2 yards per catch and 15 touchdowns. Oh and he was not just a complete running back, but in the late 70s and early 80s when the Chicago Bears suffered through years of shoddy quarterback play, he threw for 8 touchdowns.
Before Emmitt Smith became the NFL All Time rushing leader, Payton was on the tip of everyone’s tounge. But with the passing of his record, so does he name in conversation. To you young kids, he had Adrian Peterson’s power to run over the defense and break tackles, Barry Sanders’ shiftiness to break a defenders ankles, Emmitt Smith’s vision, could catch the ball out the backfield as good or better than Marshall Faulk and LaDanian Tomlinson, then run away from defensive backs like Chris Johnson. Walter Payton was and still is the standard that all running backs are measured by, much like what Jerry Rice has done for the wide receiver position.
Not impressed? I’ll let those who knew him best tell you, just how sweet, Walter Payton was.
The great Jim Brown—whose records Walter Payton mostly broke—said the first time he saw him “I said, oh my goodness [ he chuckles], What kind of animal is this? What kind of guy is this? All those moves, the strength, the tenacity. That was it. I didn’t have to see anymore. I knew this was a greater runner.” The video below is from a special on the NFL Network “Walter Payton: A Football Life” that documents his legacy from the view of players who played against him and came into the league after him, that were inspired by him, like Ray Lewis, Emmitt Smith and LaDanian Tomlinson.
Walter Jerry Payton died on November 1, 1999 of complications from a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis while he waited for a transplant. He was 45 years old. I remember that day 14 years ago vividly. I was a sophomore in college at Ohio State At Newark. I was watching ESPN in my dorm with my childhood friend and roommate Craig. I was trying to relax before basketball practice and then a breaking news alert came on the screen. The sports anchor said “Walter Payton, the all time leading rusher in NFL History has passed away.”
It took everything in me not to cry, but I did anyway. Like a baby too. Craig knew how much I loved Walter Payton and he recalled the posters I had on my wall at my parent’s house. Whenever I played football in the neighborhood growing up, I always pretended to be Walter Payton, just like when I played basketball I pretended to be Michael Jordan. That’s why when I have a son, his name will be Jordan Payton Peak. That is if my wife allows me. Jordan for Michael and Payton for Walter; my two favorite athletes ever and in my opinion the two best in their sport of all time. When Jordan Payton Peak is born I will show him highlights of his name sake to prove to him, the sweetness of the man he was named after.
SWEETNESS. One of A Kind.