As the NFL Draft approaches, Grizzly Detail is counting down the Top 30 draft picks in Chicago Bears history. In order to qualify for this list, a player must have worn a Bears uniform for at least five seasons (sorry Rosevelt Colvin and Wilber Marshall), and players who were selected in lower rounds of the draft will have an advantage in this countdown.
We begin approaching the finish line in this edition with our number four selection, who is arguably the greatest Bears player of all-time. We’re talking of course about Sweetness himself, Walter Payton.
Drafted in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft with the fourth overall pick, Payton was a player with a high ceiling, and he certainly did not disappoint. In 190 career NFL games, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards, which was an NFL record until Emmitt Smith broke it, and he scored 110 touchdowns, all with the Bears. Payton was elected to the Pro Bowl nine times and was selected to the First-Team All-Pro squad five times. He was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, and was voted in with an avalanche of support in 1993.
Payton didn’t exactly come into the league with a head full of steam, but he certainly had a good season despite not starting every game in his rookie season. He rushed for 679 yards that first year, but he did score seven touchdowns as a 22-year old, setting the stage for many quality years to come.
Two years later, Payton hit his stride in a major way. That season, he rushed for a career high 1852 yards, rushed for a career high 14 touchdowns, and caught 27 passes, including two touchdowns. His 2121 yards from scrimmage were also a career high, and it was that season that really established Payton as arguably the best running back in the game.
Naturally, just about every Bears fan remembers the 1985 season, and Payton was right in the thick of things as the team embarked on a Super Bowl winning campaign. He rushed for 1551 yards that season, scoring nine times while racking up 49 catches out of the backfield. Payton had an excellent game for the Bears in the Super Bowl, but he didn’t punch a ball into the end zone. Head coach Mike Ditka later called Payton’s lack of a touchdown in the game to be one of the biggest regrets of his life.
Following Payton’s retirement, he pursued all sorts of different interests, but things took a tragic turn in February of 1999 when Payton was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, which is believed to have led to the bile duct cancer that eventually took his life. Payton filmed several commercials encouraging people to become organ and tissue donors, but his disease had already progressed too far for that to be an option for him. He passed away on November 1st of that year, and left behind a legacy that is still honored to this day.
Payton is, in our opinion, the greatest player to ever wear a Bears uniform, but he got knocked down the list just a couple of spots because of where he was selected in the draft. As a first round pick, Payton was obviously expected to play at a high level, and since he exceeded it to such a degree, he did get bumped up the list quite a bit. Number four seems to be a good place to put him as a way to balance value, expectation, and career production, but anyone who would argue that he should be ranked even higher would have a compelling case too.