Sweetness would have been 59 today
Walter Payton would have turned 59 today, nearly 14 years after his death. We lost his sweet and graceful mother, Alyne, earlier this year. My hope is that they have had a most splendid reunion. Walter Payton was, without question, the most complete football player I ever witnessed. This is the column I wrote in 1999 when we learned he was suffering from a fatal illness seven months before his death on Nov. 1, 1999:
Walter Payton became the toughest player on the toughest team in the toughest city.
He bowled over 240-pound tacklers without breaking stride. When he stiff-armed a defender, he flattened him. He hit bigger opponents harder than they hit him, and then he always got up first.
He was so strong he could “run” a 40-yard dash upside down on his hands.
His invincibility was such that he missed just one game in 13 seasons as pro football’s most marked man.
His body, well, I don’t know how else to put this: Part of my job is going into locker rooms to interview naked and half-naked men. Only once have I been dumbstruck. It was in the home locker room at Soldiers Field in Chicago one frigid December day in 1975. Walter Payton took off his jersey and shoulder pads, revealing an incredibly chiseled torso. He had, I swear, muscles on top of muscles. Nobody ever sculpted a Greek statue that had anything on Walter Payton.
A pro scout once told me, “When God made Payton, he decided to show out.”
All that is why Tuesday’s news came as such a shock: Can’t be, I thought. Not the invincible Payton, not the toughest, most fit athlete these eyes ever saw. Not No. 34. Not Walter.
An amazing career
Please indulge me as I reminisce. It has always seemed to me that our careers were somehow intertwined, Walter’s and mine. We are the same age. We grew up 25 miles apart, he in Columbia and I in Hattiesburg.
When he was scoring his first touchdowns for the Columbia Wildcats, I was writing my first stories for The Hattiesburg American. Our Columbia correspondent, Mrs. Eva B. Beets, possessed a grandmotherly voice, rich and syrupy in its southernness. She was nearly always the first caller.
“Riiiiickey,” she said one night, “you just ain’t gonna ever believe what that Payton boy went and did tonight. He scored six touchdowns, and the last one he ran 50 yards baaaaaackwards.”
I first saw him play at Jackson State, where he scored an NCAA-record 464 points. He did it all for the Tigers, including punt, placekick and stun pro scouts by handstanding the 40-yard dash.
And I well remember that brutally cold December day in Chicago, the last day of the 1975 season. I had flown up with Walter’s mother, Alyne Payton, surely one of the sweetest, most gracious people on this earth. Walter, just a rookie, was locked in a battle with O.J. Simpson for the NFL rushing title.
Simpson won the title that day, but only because Bears coach Jack Pardee had held Payton out of a game earlier because of a bad ankle. Walter, of course, had wanted to play. It was the only game he ever missed, and my guess is he hasn’t forgiven Pardee to this day.
News didn’t seem real
I watched when he set the NFL rushing record against the Saints. I watched when he finally won a championship at the Superdome. Remember? After all those years when he was all the Bears had, he finally got a ring. He didn’t get a Super Bowl touchdown; Mike Ditka gave the ball to a fat lineman instead. Some of us have never forgiven Ditka for that.
Yes, and I watched when they retired Payton’s jersey in Chicago. And I was there on the days they inducted him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio, and the College Football Hall of Fame at South Bend, Ind.
The last time I saw him was in South Bend three years ago. He still looked strong and rugged enough to piledrive a linebacker.
But Tuesday, Walter appeared suddenly fragile and old. It didn’t seem real. Didn’t seem possible.