As we prepare for the Chicago Bears’ season opener against the Green Bay Packers, we are providing fans with a list of 100 interesting facts, records and tidbits to help you get in the football mood.
We are continuing that list today with 10 facts we’re simply nicknaming “Sweetness.” We’re paying tribute to one of the greatest Chicago Bears players of all time with 10 factoids about running back Walter Payton.
College days were kind to Sweetness
Payton played his college football at Jackson State, and he set a bevy of school records during his time there, including career rushing touchdowns (65), single-season rushing touchdowns (24) and the SWAC single-game touchdown record, rushing for seven touchdowns in a single game in 1972.
Payton also acquired his nickname “Sweetness” during his college days, although various reports and biographies have come up with different explanations for the nom de plume, including his athletic prowess, his personality, or even a sarcastic comment about his playing style.
As a side note, Payton was one of four players drafted from Jackson State in Bears history, but is the only one of them to actually appear in a game with the team.
After a slow start, Payton’s career became legendary
Payton had zero rushing yards in his first game and just 679 during his first season with the Bears, but things turned out okay for the legend. He ended up rushing for 16,726 yards during his NFL career, the highest-total in NFL history at the time.
That number was eventually surpassed by Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith.
Payton rewrote the Bears’ record books too
Obviously Payton’s 16,726 rushing yards remain the gold standard for Bears running backs, but he set all sorts of other records too. He also has the most career rushing touchdowns in Bears history with 110, the most receptions in team history with 492, and remains fourth on the team’s all-time receiving list with 4,538 receiving yards.
To illustrate just how dominant Payton was, his rushing yards total is nearly double that of the second-highest total in team history, which belongs to Matt Forte. Despite his excellent Bears career, Forte ended his run 8,124 yards behind Payton’s career total.
The Bears’ rushing record book should just have Payton’s picture on it
Only 12 players in Bears history have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a single season, and Payton accomplished the feat a staggering 10 times in his NFL career, including the iconic 1985 season.
In another illustration of his sheer dominance, the top eight rushing seasons in Bears history belong to Payton, including the 1,852 yards he gained rushing the ball in the 1977 season. That season was the final one in NFL history to feature just 14, not 16, games, and if Payton had stuck to his season average in rushing yards, he would have racked up a stupefying 2,120 yards in a 16-game slate.
Payton is also the only Bear to take home this prestigious hardware
That aforementioned 1977 NFL season was good enough to earn Payton the Associated Press Most Valuable Player award.
That award, given out since 1957, has gone to a Bear exactly one time in its 60-plus year history, and that is Sweetness himself. Sid Luckman also won an NFL MVP award during his career, but Payton remains the only one to receive the AP trophy.
A dual-threat out of the backfield
While Payton smashed all sorts of records while running the football, he actually was adept at passing it too, throwing eight career touchdown passes and racking up 331 passing yards in his NFL career.
He did have some issues protecting the football while he was honing his craft as a passer, throwing six career interceptions, but we’ll cut him a little bit of slack since he did throw a touchdown in a 1984 playoff game.
But wait, there’s more!
In an earlier edition of our Bears 100 Facts series, we pointed out that long snapper Patrick Mannelly appeared in the most games in Bears history with 245, but Payton actually holds the record for most games started as a member of the team, with 184.
Interestingly enough, Payton’s career total is just one higher than that of former center Olin Kreutz, who started a total of 183 games for the Bears in his career. Kruetz does have bragging rights in one area, playing in just one more game than Payton did (191 to 190) in his career.
Unfortunately, all that greatness comes at a bit of a cost
Payton has a lot of incredible Bears records, but there’s one that isn’t exactly great: he has the most fumbles in the history of the team, losing the ball 86 times in his career.
While that’s not entirely surprising, the man in the number two slot on that list perhaps is. That distinction belongs to none other than quarterback Jay Cutler, who coughed up the football on 65 occasions during his career.
Walter Payton’s hill
On what is now a golf course in Arlington Heights, Payton generated the leg strength and mental fortitude he needed to succeed, running sprints up and down a 92-foot embankment virtually every day that he was in the Chicago area.
That hill, which is now part of the Nickol Knoll Golf Course, has two bronze plaques dedicated to Payton’s legacy of hard work and dedication, and the clubhouse has memorabilia from the famous running back.
“I try to kill myself,” Payton said of his offseason training workouts in an interview. “I work myself to the extent where I can’t walk. The hill is something that if I had to give it a name, it would either be a goal-setter or a goal-maker.”
Even in death, Payton’s legacy lives on
At just 42 years old, Payton died after being diagnosed with a rare disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, which attacked his liver.
Normally the prognosis on the disease, now colloquially known as Walter Payton’s Disease, is good, but one of the potential complications is cancer in the liver’s bile ducts, and Payton was diagnosed with cancer before his death.
After Payton’s death, his family began a two-decades long crusade to get more Illinois residents signed up for organ transplant registries, and the University of Illinois Liver Center was renamed in his honor.
Former Bears head coach Mike Ditka has also become an outspoken advocate for research into liver disease in the years after Payton’s tragic death.
The NFL Man of the Year Award, which Payton won in 1977, was renamed in his honor after his death, dedicated to his decades of philanthropy and charitable work.
Players that win the prize receive a $50,000 donation to the charity of their choice, and wear a specially-designed patch, featuring Payton’s silhouette, on their jerseys for the remainder of their careers.
Several Bears players have been honored with the award, including Dave Duerson, Mike Singletary, Jim Flanigan, and Charles Tillman.
Finally, the Bears announced that they would dedicate a statue of Payton outside of Soldier Field, and the new monument will debut on the date that this facts post is published.
For more Bears facts:
Part 1: The Bear Necessities: 10 basic facts about the team, and the players now patrolling Soldier Field.
Part 2: In The Beginning: 10 facts about the team’s founding, original owner George Halas, and the first big star the team was able to sign in the 1920s.
Part 3: There's No Place Like Home: 10 facts about the places where the Bears have played football.
Part 4: Weathering the Storms: 10 facts about the Bears' relationship with Mother Nature.
Part 5: DA BEARS: 10 facts about the Bears through the eyes of American pop culture.
Part 6: 10 for the Record Books: A look back at some of the remarkable, and odd, NFL records set or held by Bears players.
Part 7: Leaders and Legends: A look at some of the interesting records held by Bears players from years gone by.