Sweetness ran and ran and ran

Updated: December 21, 2005, 10:35 AM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

"When I see him out there, it gives me goose bumps. Not the speediest, not the quickest, but he was [always] throwing his body at somebody. I think God looked down and said, 'Walter, you're going to play for 13 years, and you're going to miss one game. And they're going to beat you up and knock you down, and you're still going to get up and play," says Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers about Walter Payton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Walter Payton held the NFL's all-time rushing record for almost two decades. He broke Jim Brown's mark in 1984 and when he retired after the 1987 season, he had extended the record to 16,726 yards. Not until 2002, when Emmitt Smith rushed past him, was the man called "Sweetness" knocked down from the top spot in the record book.

For Payton, the 16,726 yards not only signified the 9 miles he ran for in 13 seasons, they also represented durability from a running back who enjoyed the physical contact of ducking his head and plowing into a defender just to get that extra yard.

"If I'm going to get hit," Payton said, "why let the guy who's going to hit me get the easiest and best shot? I explode into the guy who's trying to tackle me."

Despite all this punishment, he missed only one game in his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears. Not bad for a guy who predicted he would last only five years.

And yet, like Lou Gehrig, another iron man, Payton passed away in the prime of his life. On Feb. 2, 1999, a frail and skinny Payton announced that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disease in which the ducts that drain bile from the liver become inflamed and blocked. While undergoing treatment, it was discovered that he had bile duct cancer.

Payton died on Nov. 1, 1999. He was 45.

On the football field, he had seemed unstoppable - and he knew it. Tacklers had difficulty tackling those hard-pounding legs, those runs in which his knees never looked like they were bending, the changes in direction, the bursts through the lines, the overpowering collisions.

Asked what defenses should do to stop him, Payton said, "The night before the game, I guess they'd have to kidnap me."

And to think this man who also ran for 275 yards in one game - an NFL record that would last for 23 years - and led the Bears to a Super Bowl could have become a drummer or even a professional dancer. As a college freshman, he was a finalist in the national "Soul Train" dance contest.

He was born on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Miss. Even though his family was athletically inclined, his mother Alyne didn't permit Walter to play football in high school until his junior year at all-black Jefferson High. The next season, he starred for the first class to integrate Columbia High School.

After shedding the childhood nickname "Spiderman," Payton picked up "Sweetness" at Jackson State, a school he chose over larger, more glamorous suitors because his brother Eddie was already playing there. Whether it was for all the skills he brought to the field or because it packed a certain irony for someone who enjoyed physical contact, the new nickname stuck.

After breaking into the starting lineup as a freshman in 1971, Payton would finish his Jackson State career in 1974 with 464 points, an NCAA Division II scoring record that would not be broken until 1998. Not only was Payton a marvelous running back, he developed into a multiple threat. Receiver. Return man. Punter. Placekicker. Those 464 points were composed of 66 touchdowns, five field goals and 53 extra points.

Despite playing for a small school, Payton received consideration for the Heisman Trophy. New York columnist Dick Young, writing in The Sporting News, validated the hype two months before Payton's senior season. He predicted Payton would become the first player from a traditionally black college to win the Heisman.

Though Payton, a jewel in the small-college rough, didn't come close to winning the award, he was the first running back selected (No. 4 overall) in the 1975 draft. With his strong upper body and muscular legs, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Payton was the prototype for a young running back.

As a rookie, Payton ran for 679 yards and
Payton had 110 rushing touchdowns.
established himself as a reliable blocker and return man. An NFC rushing title followed in 1976, when Payton gained 1,390 yards. He might have grabbed the league-rushing crown from O.J. Simpson (1,503 yards) had he not been injured before the last game.

He made up for it in 1977 with his finest season. Payton was voted the league's MVP after winning his only NFL rushing title with 1,852 yards, including his most impressive individual performance.

On November 20, two days after being bed-ridden with the flu, he ran for 77 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter. At halftime, he was up to 144. After three quarters, he had 192. Boosted by a 58-yard off-tackle dash in the fourth period, Payton finished with 275 yards, two more than Simpson's record.

It was as if he was burning the flu out of his body with every one of his 40 carries, proving his belief that "I get stronger as the game goes on."

Between 1976 and 1980, Payton led the NFC in rushing every season, and his annual salary rose to $475,000, the highest in the league.

All the while, Payton's weight-training regimen in the offseason became legendary. Besides lifting, his daily routine included runs along the obstacles near the Pearl River in Mississippi. He ran through "The Sand" (65 yards worth of beach) or up "The Levee" (a 45-degree slope).

In the early eighties, Payton and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Franco Harris were on pace to break Brown's career rushing record of 12,312 yards. Harris eventually fell by the wayside, his durability being no match for Payton's. Arthroscopic surgery on both knees after the 1983 season didn't stop Payton, who called the operations "my 11,000-yard checkup."

On Oct. 7, 1984, against the New Orleans Saints, Payton broke the record with a six-yard sweep at Soldier Field. The game was stopped for three minutes as teammates and photographers surrounded him.

Still, the one thing missing from Payton's career was a Super Bowl ring. That problem would be corrected in the 1985 season.

Those Bears were a team of characters: Flamboyant bad-boy quarterback Jim McMahon, larger-than-than-life lineman-turned-occasional running back William "Refrigerator" Perry, street-fighting Buddy Ryan's "46" defense, and, of course, coach Mike Ditka.

Amid all that flash, Payton was clearly the team's most productive player, gaining 1,551 yards on the ground and another 483 on 49 pass receptions to lead the Bears to an 18-1 record, including a 46-10 rout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

Payton's last big year was 1986, when he reached 1,000 yards rushing for the 10th time in his career. He also became the first player to eclipse a career total of 20,000 all-purpose yards.

Age and injuries finally took their toll in 1987, when Payton announced he was competing in his last season. Before the Bears' final regular-season home game, Payton's No. 34 uniform was retired.

Walter Payton
"Sweetness" described Walter Payton on and off the field.
His career totals include 125 touchdowns (110 rushing and 15 receiving), 21,803 all-purpose yards, 77 games with at least 100 yards on the ground, 3,838 carries (second to Smith), nine Pro Bowl selections and, yes, those 16,726 yards rushing. The numbers put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 1993 and on the NFL's 75th Anniversary team in 1994. Payton was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

After retiring, he served on the Bears board of directors and was a partner in business ventures ranging from racecars to restaurants.

For his legacy, Payton didn't want people to focus on his statistics, impressive as they were. "I want to be remembered," he said, "like Pete Rose. 'Charlie Hustle.' I want people to say, 'Wherever he was, he was always giving it his all.'"

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