Sweet victory
By Larry Schwartz
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 on Walter 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's SportsCentury show (Friday, April 23, 10:30 p.m. ET). Payton, who holds the NFL record of 16,726 yards rushing, was voted No. 39 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.


Nov. 20, 1977 -- Suffering the effects of a flu attack, Payton stayed in bed Thursday and most of Friday. By game time, Payton was feeling well enough to play against Minnesota, though not 100 percent.

By the time the game at Chicago's Soldier Field was over, it is the vaunted Vikings defense that was feeling sick as Payton tore through it to set an NFL rushing record.

 Walter Payton
Walter Payton made an all-out assault on the NFL record book.

He ran for 77 yards in the first quarter and had 144 on 26 carries, including a one-yard touchdown run, by halftime. Forty-eight more yards in the third quarter brought him to 192. He tied his and Gale Sayers' team record of 205 yards in the fourth quarter.

With less than five minutes left in the game and Payton still 64 yards from breaking O.J. Simpson's single game record of 273, it looked like O.J.'s mark would withstand Payton's assault. But then, on Payton's 38th carry, he burst over right tackle, cut to the right and raced down the sideline until he went out of bounds at the Vikings' nine. The 58-yard run was his longest of the day.

A sweep gained him three yards and then, on fourth-and-goal at the Minnesota six, he wiped out O.J.'s record by going four yards, bringing his total to 275 on 40 carries.

Payton single-handedly outgained the Vikings by 92 yards in the Bears' 10-7 victory. Chicago quarterback Bob Avellini threw only seven passes.

"The holes were there, and I just ran," Payton said. "This was a day when everything went right."


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. His doctor said that if Payton didn't have a liver transplant within two years, he would die. But with the disease spreading faster than doctors had thought, Payton later said that he thought he would die before the end of 1999 without a transplant. He has not yet had the transplant.

As a freshman at all-black Jefferson (Mississippi) High School, Payton played a drum in the school band while his brother Eddie was a star on the football team. Walter joined the football team as a sophomore and on his first carry scored on a 65-yard run. As a senior, he was a standout at newly integrated Columbia High.

Two of Payton's relatives -- Eddie and uncle Rickey Young -- also played in the NFL.

Payton was a pre-med student at Jackson State.

Besides making it to the national finals of a "Soul Train" dance contest, Payton prided himself in the way he made music. "My cymbal playing is one thing I'll brag about," he said. "Man, I was good."

Early in his NFL career, Payton had to be treated for hyperventilation during games. "It was like stage fright, coming from a small school and a small town and being thrust into the limelight in a big city like Chicago," said Dr. Theodore Fox, the Bears' orthopedic surgeon at the time. "He was nervous, fatigued, hot and a little scared."

Payton led the NFL in carries four consecutive seasons (1976-79).

Payton led the NFL in rushing only once, when he ran for 1,852 yards in 1977.

His longest run with the Bears was 76 yards in 1978. In December 1978, Payton's father Edward died in a Mississippi jail after he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving following an incident at a gas station. In jail, he developed breathing problems, passed out and never recovered. While an autopsy revealed no alcohol in his blood, police were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Though the Bears' leading runner with 1,551 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in 1985 -- running for at least 100 yards in nine consecutive games -- Payton did not score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX. When the Bears drove to the New England one late in their 46-10 victory, coach Mike Ditka gave the ball to defensive lineman-turned-running back William "Refrigerator" Perry.

The Walter Payton Award was established in 1987 to be awarded annually to the best player in Division I-AA football. Payton's alma mater, Jackson State, is a Division I-AA school.

Payton and his wife Connie have been married 21 years. They have two children, Jarrett (who will be attending the University of Miami on a football scholarship in the fall) and Brittany.

Twelve years after his final season, Payton still holds eight NFL and 28 Bears records. Among his marks are the 21,803 total yards he compiled rushing, receiving and returning kicks.