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  • Heather Mistretta

Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. Payton: How Sweet it Was

Enter disclaimer. It’s okay to digress sometimes. Today, I’m giving myself a pass, and I encourage you to do the same.

I clearly have a passion for writing, but tucked behind that passion, perhaps a bit more discretely, is another one for sports, both playing and watching. I remember watching the NY Giants growing up, from the beleaguered days of the 70s to the Super Bowl glory days of the 80s. I was also a diehard Yankee fan during that time, particularly when the World Series limelight-stealing shortstop in stripes, Bucky Dent was playing. Personally, I played softball and field hockey and dabbled at a few others like tennis. So, when I noticed that today marked the birthday of one of the greatest the NFL has ever seen, I couldn’t help but write about it. As I’ve said before, the inspiration to write can come in many forms.

It’s hard to believe that Walter Payton, who died nearly 20 years ago, would have just celebrated his 65th birthday. Born on July 25, 1954, the star running back for the Chicago Bears and arguably one of the best football players of all time was a powerhouse both on and off the field. Growing up as a loyal Giants fan…and yes, I still am…I remember the guy from Mississippi who was known as “Sweetness” who ran down the field with speed, creative agility and a tireless drive to succeed both for himself and his teammates.

Number 34 was a class act with a personality that seemed to radiate through his infectious, bright smile. I remember his orange or white headbands…yes, it was the 80s, and I remember his soft voice that seemed to mask his fearless power within. I remember the fluidity at which he moved down the field either dodging defenders or powering his way through them. It seemed hard to believe he was less than six feet tall and a good 100 pounds lighter than the players he foiled.

Perhaps it had to do with his workouts that became legendary. Whether he was climbing a steep hill by his house 20 times a day or in the locker room bench-pressing 390 pounds and doing leg-press series with more than 700 pounds, Payton’s prowess was unattainable for most. It was said that he could throw a football 60 yards, punt it 70 yards, kick a field goal of 45 yards and walk across a football field on his hands.

Payton was larger than life. He was a selfless leader who often handed the ball to a teammate or referee after scoring a touchdown to show respect and thanks. He clearly knew it was not all about him.

After stunning spectators at Jackson State University where he rushed for more than 3,500 years and racked up a record 464 points while earning a bachelor’s degree in communications in only 3 ½ years at the age of 20, Payton, who in high school was more concerned with being in the band than running with a football, wanted to dispel the myth that athletes, in particular black athletes, never worked very hard in the classroom. He started taking graduate classes with the hopes of attaining a master’s degree in education for the deaf.

But in 1975, Payton was the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Bears…a decision that proved to shape history for the club, the NFL and football overall.

He played for the Bears his entire career, ending in 1987, plowing through the club’s ups and downs along the way. He was picked for the Pro Bowl nine times, and up until the Cowboys star running back Emmitt Smith came along, he held onto the all-time record for career rushing yards with 16,726.

One of Payton's signature maneuvers was the "stutter-step", a high-stepping, irregularly paced run. He developed this as a way to distract his pursuers during long runs, saying that it startled them into thinking and gave him some advantage over players who were actually faster runners. In his autobiography, “Never Die Easy,” he likened the stutter step to a kind of "option play": when he was stutter-stepping, defenders would have to commit to a pursuit angle based upon whether they thought he would accelerate after the stutter-step, or cut — he would read this angle and do the opposite of what the defender had committed to.

He was also creative in devising other ways to defy his opponents—from stiff-arming his tacklers to leaping into the end zone sometimes on his head.

It clearly worked. He rushed 3,838 times for 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns--all records at the time. He also caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 more touchdowns. Altogether, he scored 125 touchdowns, second most ever, and he accounted for a record 21,803 combined net yards. He even managed to throw a few TDs of his own, retiring with the most receptions by a non-receiver and eight career touchdown passes. Payton proceeded to win two NFL Most Valuable Player Awards and won Super Bowl XX with the 1985 Chicago Bears, having only missed one game in his entire career.

The son of a factory worker was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

His list of accomplishments is endless, a feat that seemed unfathomable given his rather short career…at least, too short for anyone who watched him play. After struggling with the rare liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis for several months, Payton died on November 1, 1999, at the age of 45, from cholangiocarcinoma. But before his untimely death, he courageously promoted the importance of organ donation and sparked a significant uptick in the number of donors.

On the field, Payton’s legacy includes the Walter Payton Award and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. But perhaps more important to him was the legacy he created with his wife, Connie, who he married in 1976. The couple had two children, Jarrett (born 1980) and Brittney (born 1985).

Jarrett, the presenter at his father’s induction ceremony at the Pro Hall of Fame when he was only 12, told the audience, ''Not only is my dad an exceptional athlete, he's my biggest role model and best friend.'' He later went on to play for the University of Miami.

Before his death, he started the charitable organization, the Walter Payton Foundation that later became the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation, retaining its mission of helping the underprivileged, neglected children of Illinois.

"Walter made the Payton name mean something special and we, his family, accept the challenge to make only good things happen in the Payton name."

Jarrett later founded the Jarrett Payton Foundation to carry on his parents’ tradition of caring for the less fortunate by developing programs and providing opportunities to allow them to grow.

So, life often comes full circle, something I have been reminded of quite often lately. This year, I’m proud to say that Giant quarterback Eli Manning was the co-winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. How sweet it is. Happy Birthday, Mr. Payton.

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