Born on this day in Columbia, Mississippi, Chicago Bears great running back Walter Jerry Payton (1954-1999) had the nickname "Sweetness" for his disposition and his smooth running style.
Called "the best football player I've ever seen" by his coach Mike Ditka, No. 34 was the NFL's all-time leading rusher when he retired, logging 16,726 yards in 3,838 attempts in his phenomenal 13-year career.
"I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart," Payton once said. Emmitt Smith broke Payton's rushing record in October 2002.
An unselfish player and a joy to watch play, Payton was a "high stepping" runner who had a unique way of carrying the football, palming the ball with one hand whenever he broke into the open. He'd punish the defense, initiating hits rather than avoiding them. If he couldn't break a tackle, he'd drag the defender with him.
"I think of all the guys that I covered over the years, he was my favorite," praised broadcaster John Madden of the beloved star. Payton set a standard for giving 100% and led the Bears to an unforgettable 15-1 season and the Super Bowl title in 1986.
A hero both on and off the field, Payton worked with Chicago's inner-city youth andco-sponsoring the Halas/Payton Foundation (1988). He loved his community as much as he loved the game of football.
Diagnosed with a rare liver disease, Walter Payton lost his battle with cancer in 1999. His family established The Walter Payton Cancer Fund to continue Payton's fight with groundbreaking cancer research and creative treatment options.
Upon his 1993 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the soft-spoken man of toughness and heart said, "Life is short, it is oh so sweet. There are a lot of people that we meet as we walk through these hallowed halls, but the things that mean the most are the friendships that you meet and take along with you."
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