Today is the anniversary of Walter Payton's untimely death. Eleven years ago, Payton died from cancer. It's hard to believe that 11 years have passed since Chicago lost its most beloved athlete. Looking at the NFL landscape, it's hard to imagine that another player will ever emerge that was as special as "Sweetness."
Mike Ditka once called Payton the greatest football player of all time, and this is hardly hyperbole. Though Payton is best known for being a hard-nosed running back, he punted during his rookie season. He has 4,538 receiving yards and eight passing touchdowns. His blocks were legendary, allowing for receivers like Willie Gault to have amazing season. There was not a job on the field that Payton was too good for.
But he did the most damage as a rusher. Payton would not be tackled easily, often dragging four or five defenders with him as he would continue to churn his legs. His stiff arm was the punishment for any opponent who dared to tackle Payton. He wasn't as sleek as Gale Sayers or as strong as Jim Brown. He just worked hard, and that translated into his running.
Payton also made the game more fun. He'd pinch referees' behinds, tie together shoelaces from the bottom of the pile, and play pranks on everyone from his teammates to the Bears brass. When President Ronald Reagan called to congratulate Payton on breaking the all-time rushing record, Payton smiled and said, "Give my best to Nancy."
All of these things played into why Chicago loved him so much. He was a joy to watch because he worked so hard. He loved playing football, and it showed every single time Sweetness took the field. All that skill and joy was wrapped up in one 5-foot-10 package that stole Chicago's hearts.
But the joy and skill is unlikely to be repeated for a few reasons. For one, football players are specialized well before they join the NFL. Players who can run the ball well aren't likely to be able to punt and pass. Also, Payton would have been fined to the point of bankruptcy for some of the hits he put on opponents, especially if you add in the fines that would have been levied on Payton for bringing fun to the field.
It's Payton's singularity as a man and a football player that make him so special to Chicagoans. Even in the final days of his short life, Payton continued to do what most other people wouldn't do. He lobbied for organ donation even after it was clear that a transplant wouldn't save his life. Eleven years after his death, it's clear that we won't see another like Payton. We were lucky in Chicago to have him grace the field for the 13 seasons he played for the Bears and the years he stayed in Illinois afterwards.