Sweet spot

9/17/2009 - NFL Chicago Bears

CHICAGO -- Let me get this straight: The same Chicago Park District that doesn't mind its stadium looking like a "Star Wars" toilet bowl might be willing to place a Walter Payton statue on the Soldier Field grounds? Huh?

We're talking about Sweetness here, not Curtis Enis. We're talking about the greatest running back this franchise, this city and -- sorry, Emmitt Smith -- the NFL has ever seen. We're talking about a guy who left bits and pieces of his body on that field and did so without complaint, who died at 45 and was as Chicago as the South Loop.

Why the park district even needs to meet with the Payton family to discuss this issue is beyond me. This is no-brainer territory. Payton. Soldier Field. Statue. What's not to like?

But wait -- there might be a policy in place that says Soldier Field is a memorial to soldiers, not to tailbacks. And sure enough, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society opening ceremonies were held there Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, the park district doesn't have a problem with cashing rental checks from the Chicago Bears, or from bands such as U2, which just played a weekend gig at Soldier Field. (And thanks to the concerts, they'll have to resod the entire surface, too -- which means lots of skid marks in the new turf in Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers-Bears game.)

But, yes, Soldier Field was indeed built -- and named -- to honor veterans of World War I. Inside Gate O, there's a statue of a "doughboy" soldier. But it's not as if the Payton family and friends want that statue removed or the stadium name changed.

Nobody, except possibly the park district, seems too reluctant about the possibility of a bronze Payton statue on the grounds. Park district officials say they "look forward to meeting with the family on this issue," but what they should have said was, "Done deal on the statue. Tell us when and where."

If the park district is worried about war veterans being upset, forget it.

"Walter Payton was a great American, a great citizen, a great family man and then a great football player," said Jerry Newberry, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars national headquarters. "He represented courage and dignity. He represented some of the best things found in America. [A statue is] not disrespectful. The stadium wasn't meant to be a quiet, somber memorial -- an Arlington Cemetery or Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"[Soldier Field] was dedicated in memory of those who served. The stadium still remains standing. That in itself should be tribute enough."

And this from Korean War vet Norm Kirst, commander of VFW Des Plaines Valley Memorial Post 6863, which is about seven miles from Soldier Field: "I wouldn't have no problem with [a Payton statue]. He was an outstanding football player. If they want to put a statue of a [war] veteran, they can still put it in there."

OK, so the VFW national headquarters doesn't have a problem with a Payton statue at Soldier Field. And a local VFW commander says he and other area vets wouldn't have a problem with a Payton statue. And the Bears themselves are certainly for it.

Let's be honest, Soldier Field lost a lot of its identity when architects turned the place into an Ikea store with seat licenses. In 2006, the National Park Service even revoked the stadium's status as a National Historic Landmark.

Anyway, a Payton statue wouldn't cheapen Soldier Field, it would lend some class to the stadium. What, the park district thinks it's going to be a statue of Payton doing the "Super Bowl Shuffle"?

But let's say the park district doesn't sign off on the Payton statue. Bureaucracy defeats common sense. What else is new?

Here's the thing: As much as as I'd like to see a bronze likeness of Payton at the same stadium where he broke the NFL's career rushing record (I was there), I'll be OK if it doesn't happen. That's because Payton's legacy doesn't need a statue to define it. He was larger than life when he played. He's bigger than bronze and granite in death.

Payton retired as the league's all-time leading rusher. Smith eventually passed him, but with all due respect, that doesn't mean he was better than Payton. And by the way, it's no accident that the NFL's Man of the Year Award is named after Payton.

A statue would be nice. It would be nicer if it were located at Soldier Field, but Halas Hall would work or Grant Park or even O'Hare Airport (Pittsburgh has a life-size mannequin of Steelers' great Franco Harris inside its airport).

Payton was a proud man, but he wasn't vain. He deserves a statue, and he deserves it where he played. Most of all, he deserves to be remembered and celebrated. If the park district is too dopey to realize that, then shame on it.

But whatever happens, Payton's greatness won't be affected. Statue or no statue, Soldier Field or no Soldier Field, Payton will always be Sweetness.

And that, you can carve in stone.

Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.