Payton, NFL's career rushing leader, dies at 45

Payton ranked 39th-best athlete of century

Sweetness ran and ran and ran
By Ron Flatter
Special to

It doesn't have the same ring to it as 755, but football fans might argue 16,726 should be just as significant as baseball's most hallowed career record.

 Walter Payton
Payton carried the ball and ran for more yards than any running back in NFL history.

That 16,726 is the number that quantifies "Sweetness." It's the career record for most yards rushing in the National Football League.

For Walter Payton, 16,726 yards not only signify the 9½ miles he ran for, they also represent durability from a running back who was not afraid to take a hit, to duck his head and plow 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 in the league.

But he played for 13 seasons. And on Nov. 1, 1999, nearly 12 years after his retirement from football, Payton died of bile duct cancer that was discovered earlier in the year during treatment for a rare liver disease. He was 45.

But on the football field, he seemed unstoppable -- and he knew it. Tacklers had difficulty stopping 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 an NFL record of 275 yards in one game and led the Bears to a Super Bowl could have become a drummer or even a professional dancer. In college, 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, Payton did not play football until he was a high school junior. By the time he left Columbia High School, a strong upper body and muscular legs made the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Payton the prototype for a young running back.

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 loved 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 some consideration for the Heisman Trophy. Renowned 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.

As a rookie, Payton ran for 679 yards and 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 with his best year ever in 1977. Payton was voted the league's MVP after leading the NFL with 1,852 yards rushing, including his most impressive individual performance.

On Nov. 20, two days after being bed-ridden with the flu, he had run for 77 yards against the Minnesota Vikings by the end of the first quarter. At halftime, he was up to 144. After three quarters, he had 192. Boosted by a 58-yard off-tackle run in the fourth quarter, Payton finished with his record 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 '80s Payton and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Franco Harris were on pace to break Jim 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 even stop Payton, who called the operations "my 11,000-yard checkup."

In a 1984 game 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.

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, an NFL record 3,838 carries, nine Pro Bowl selections and, yes, those 16,726 yards rushing. The numbers put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 1993 and on the NFL's 75th Anniversary team in 1994. Payton was also enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

Although his rushing record of 16,726 yards is an easy number to forget, Payton indicated an easier way to keep him in mind.

"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.' "