Steps to Success
Payton, Walter (25 July 1954-1 Nov. 1999), NFL Hall of Fame football player, was born in Columbia, Mississippi, the son of Peter Payton, a factory worker, and Alyne Payton. Walter, or "Spider Man" as he called himself as a boy, was active in Boy Scouts, the church choir, camping with friends, and playing drums in the band before he finally turned to football his junior year in high school at the all-black Jefferson High School. Already bigger and stronger than most of his teammates, Walter was an instant starter.
Halfway through his junior year at Jefferson, the all-white Columbia High School was ordered to integrate, and Payton and several of his teammates transferred there. They were upset, however, when a white coach, Tommy Davis, was hired for the Columbia job instead of their Jefferson coach, Charles Boston. Already socially conscious at the age of sixteen, Payton boycotted spring practice that year to express his dissatisfaction, but, recognizing that the decision would not change, he joined the team for the start of his senior season.
Payton led his Columbia team to an 8-2 record that year and was named All State. But with just one year at the school and two years of high school football, he was not heavily recruited. He attended nearby Jackson State University, where he joined a team that featured a number of other future NFL players and Pro Bowlers, including Jerome Barkham, Vernon Perry, Ricky Young, Robert Brazille, and fellow Hall of Famer Jackie Slater. At Jackson State Payton rushed for 3,563 yards, achieved a 6.1 average, and became the NCAA's all-time leading rusher with 65 touchdowns. He majored in communications and graduated in 1975.
In the spring of 1975, the Chicago Bears made Payton the fourth player chosen on the first round of the NFL college draft. While it may have seemed strange at the time for the young man from rural Mississippi to leave the small city of Columbia for the second largest city in the country, the shift proved ideal. Payton spent his entire thirteen-year professional football career in Chicago, becoming one of the greatest players in the history of the game. And he did it as arguably the toughest and hardest working player the game had ever seen, giving meaning and hope to the citizens of the "City of Big Shoulders" who flocked to Bears games to watch Payton carry his mediocre team week after week.
Payton played all but one game his rookie year. Over the player's strenuous objections, Rookie coach Jack Pardee forced his prize pupil with a sprained ankle to sit out the fifth week of the season. This game, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the only game
Payton missed in his thirteen-year career, a record that perhaps more than any of his others raised number 34 to legendary stature.
Walter Payton married Connie Norwood in 1976; they would have a son, Jarrett, and a daughter, Brittney.
Over the next twelve seasons Payton averaged 1,337 yards rushing per season. He went to his first Pro Bowl in 1976 and then eight more in '78, '79, '80, '81, '84, '85, '86 and '87. In 1977, playing with a bad case of flu, Payton set an NFL record rushing for 275 yards in a game against the Minnesota Vikings. On 7 October 1984, he rushed for 154 yards against the New Orleans Saints, shattering what was believed to be Jim Brown's unassailable record of 12,312 yards. Payton finished his career with 10 NFL records including 3,838 rushes, 16,726 yards, most 1,000-yard seasons (10), and most 100-yard rushing games (77). He also set 28 Chicago Bears records and was the team's backup punter and place kicker. He even played quarterback in a game in 1984. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on 31 July 1993, the first player in the history of the Hall to be presented by his son. His wife and daughter were also in attendance.
Payton was, however, far more than just a great football player. Mike Ditka, Payton's coach for the last five years of his career and during his only championship season in 1985, said of Payton, "I mean no disrespect to any player, because there've been a lot of great ones. I'll just say I believe he was the best I ever saw and probably the greatest ever." To millions of fans in Chicago and around the world he was known affectionately as "Sweetness," the name he earned for the way he both played on the field and carried himself off it. Payton was successful in business as well as sports; he had interests in restaurants, real estate, banking, construction, and, particularly, auto racing. One of his great disappointments was failing to become an NFL owner because of a failed bid to gain an expansion team in St. Louis when the clubs were awarded to Jacksonville and Carolina and the Rams then moved to St. Louis.
Late in 1998 it became obvious that something was wrong with the always robust Payton when he began losing weight and the whites of his eyes began to yellow. In February 1999 he went public with the news that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease of the liver. Fans everywhere expected to hear that the unstoppable Payton would be receiving a liver transplant, but when a trip to the Mayo Clinic in May revealed a tumor in his liver, all hope was lost. His last months were spent as a crusader for organ donorship and transplants. He died at home in South Barrington, Illinois.
Talented Payton wasn't in national spotlight at JSU
By Mark Alexander
Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
It's hard to imagine the National Football League's all-time career rushing leader finishing 14th in any Heisman Trophy race. But that's precisely where Jackson State's Walter Payton finished in 1974, 13 spots behind winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State. The Heisman might be college football's ultimate individual award, but it's certainly no indicator of how a player will fare in the NFL. "You never heard much about Archie Griffin after his college years," JSU sports information director Sam Jefferson said. "He was history. And Walter's (NFL career) was history." Payton, a Columbia native, graduated in 1974 as college football's all-time scoring champ. And even though he was named to five different All-America teams after a splendid junior season, Payton knew his chances of winning the Heisman at then-Division II JSU were slim. So did Jefferson. But like any good publicist, Jefferson didn't let that deter him. "Why Not Payton?" and "Payton's Place" bumper stickers quickly circulated.
"We worked hard on getting him that exposure," Jefferson said. "We mailed out to the voters once a week hoping somebody would notice. We thought he was a real special football player, and he proved that." One writer, Dick Young, took notice. In the July 6, 1974 edition of The Sporting News, Young stepped out on a limb, picking Payton to win the Heisman. He wrote: "Long range, long-shot prediction. . . . Walter Payton will be the first man from a black college to win the Heisman Trophy." Payton's response? "I'm surprised he would come out for me." Payton, far removed from the national media spotlight and future days of Heisman contenders having their own Web sites, didn't win the Heisman that year. But he sure looked good trying.
The 1981 Vote
1. Archie Griffin, Ohio State
2. Anthony Davis, USC
3. Joe Washington, Oklahoma
4. Walter Payton, JSU
With an aggressive, elusive style that later became all too familiar to defensive backs in the NFL, Payton ran for 1,029 yards and 19 touchdowns in 1974. He also kicked one field goal and six PATs. The year before Payton led the nation in scoring with 160 points. He finished his career with 3,563 yards and 66 touchdowns. The rest, as Jefferson said, was history.
Jackson State (1971-74)
COLLEGE: Payton was a two-time first team All-American in 1973 and 1974 at Jackson State University. He ran for 3,563 yards and scored 66 total touchdowns and set the NCAA scoring record with 464 points. He set a Southwestern Athletic Conference record for most points in a game. He led the nation in 1973 in scoring with 160 points. He was a four year starter at Jackson State, setting nine school records and receiving votes for the Heisman Trophy in 1974.
CAREER COLLEGE STATS: 37 games, 584 carries for 3,563 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, caught 474 yards passing for a total of 4,037 career yards; scored 66 TDs, kicked 5 FGs, and 53 PATs for 464 total points. In 1987, the Most Valuable Player Trophy for Division I-AA was named after him. In 1993, he was named to the Black College All-Time team. In 1997, Payton was named to the Division II Football Team of the Quarter Century.
PRO: Payton was a a first round draft pick by the Chicago Bears in 1975. He played 13 seasons and was named to the pro Bowl nine times. By the end of his professional career, Payton was the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Payton was also named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team in 1994 and has been inducted into the JSU Sports Hall of Fame and SWAC Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the Chicago Bears Board of Directors.
What Others Say
"All of us in the NFL family are saddened by the loss of Walter Payton. He was without a doubt one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Walter exemplified class and all of us in sports should honor him by striving to perpetuate his standard of excellence. Walter was an inspiration in everything he did. The tremendous grace and dignity he displayed in his final months reminded us again why "Sweetness" was the perfect nickname for Walter Payton."
-- NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue
It's sad to me, because he had a lot greater impact on my life than I had on his. He was the best football player I've ever seen, and probably one of the best people I've ever met.
-- former Bears coach, Mike Ditka
"After Brian Piccolo died, my husband Ed and I promised ourselves we wouldn't be so personally involved with any of the players. And we were able to follow that resolve until Walter Payton came into our lives."
-- Virginia McCaskey, daughter of George Halas and wife of team Chairman Emertius, Ed McCaskey
"We were saddened to learn of the passing of Walter Payton. Walter was without a doubt one of the greatest athletes to ever live. The courage and personal strength he demonstrated on the field was exceeded only by the courage and strength he demonstrated off the field as he dealt with his illness."
-- John Bankert, Executive Director Pro Football Hall of Fame
Walter was the kind of guy you wanted to be around because if you were down, he wouldn't let you stay down. It was his duty to bring humor and light to any situation. As a person, he was one of the guys who was a bright spot wherever darkness appeared.
-- former teammate, Mike Singletary
"Walter Payton was an inspiration to me by the way he carried himself on the field and off the field."
-- Dallas running back Emmitt Smith
"Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there. He was a great man off the field, and his on the field accomplishments speak for themselves."
-- Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan
"As far as I'm concerned, I thought he was the greatest. With the teams he played on, and what he did, missing only one to two games his whole career. And, on top of that, he was just a great guy."
-- Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris
"When I came into the league I looked up to him, not only as a player, but how he handled himself as a person. He will be missed by everyone who was fortunate to have known him."
-- Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino
"He was a great guy, a great human being, a very giving person. It's a real tragedy. We've lost a great man and one of the all-time great football players in the National Football League."
-- Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora
"Walter had fought a long hard fight for several months. Just as in his athletic career, he was courageous every step."
-- Butch Davis, coach of the Miami Hurricanes.
"He meant so much to the city of Chicago
. 'Sweetness' - there may not have been a better nickname for a player."
-- San Diego Chargers quarterback Jim Harbaugh, a rookie with the Bears in 1987
"Walter is a great man. He was heavily involved in charitable activities, came into Chicago from a small town, small school, not as well known and really always made a great contribution to the community."
-- Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green
"He broke all the rules -- that you've got to be big and powerful to be a power running back. He left as strong on his last run as he did when he first came into the league."
-- Minnesota running back Leroy Hoard