Walter Jerry Payton is the most complete player in the history of the National Football League.
Born on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi, as the youngest of three children in an athletic family, his father played semi-pro baseball and his older brother, Eddie, played for five seasons in the NFL. Payton attended John J. Jefferson High School where he long-jumped nearly 23 feet, averaged 18 points a game in basketball, played baseball, sang in the choir and played drums in the marching band. The football coach recruited Walter to try out for the team in his sophomore year, which he agreed to, so long as he be allowed to continue playing in the band. He gained 65 yards the first time he carried the ball, scored in every game of his junior and senior seasons and made the All-State team. Payton received no offers from SEC schools and committed to Kansas State before changing his mind and joining Eddie at Jackson State College, where the duo started in the same backfield in 1971, Walter’s freshman and Eddie’s senior years. There, he rushed for 3,563 yards in four seasons, averaged 6.1 yards per carry and set nine school records, including scoring 7 touchdowns and 46 points in a single game. He led the nation in scoring in 1973 with 160 points and his 464 career points was an NCAA record. Later that year, he performed on Soul Train and finished second, later insisting he would have won the competition had he had a better dance partner. Payton was also a disciplined student, graduating from Jackson State in three-and-a-half years with a bachelor’s degree in special education. In 1974, Payton was named All-American and Black College Player of the Year but finished 14th place in Heisman Trophy voting.
The Chicago Bears selected “Sweetness” with the fourth overall pick of the 1975 NFL Draft. His debut was inauspicious, as Payton was held to zero rushing yards on eight attempts in his first game, but he improved to finish the season with seven touchdowns and led the league in kickoff return yardage. The halfback rushed for 1,390 yards to lead the league the following year and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, where he was named MVP, in addition to being named league MVP by The Sporting News. In his third campaign, Payton ran for 1,852 yards and led the league in scoring with 16 touchdowns. In November of that year, he set an NFL single-game record when he gained 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings despite a 101-degree fever and intense case of the flu. “Sweetness” was named NFL MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1977 in route to earning the third of his five consecutive league rushing titles. The Bears were a mediocre 40-36 during that five year span and every defense in the league knew that Walter Payton was getting the ball, yet he still managed to slash opponents with his punishing running style and score 60 percent of the team’s rushing touchdowns. Payton averaged over 1,400 yards and 322 carries a season in his first nine full years in the league and broke Jim Brown’s record for most career rushing yards in October of 1984, a season in which he gained a career-high 1,684 yards while catching 45 passes. The Bears went 10-6 and made the NFC Championship game but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, 23-0. The following year, Payton led the Bears to a 15-1 record and the franchise’s only Super Bowl win. The 31 year-old superstar rushed for over 100 yards in 10 games that season– nine of them in a row– and totaled 1,551 for the year. Payton was selected to his eighth Pro Bowl and named NFL MVP for the second time in his career. He led the Bears to the playoffs in each of the next two seasons before his # 34 was retired in a ceremony prior to the final game of his illustrious career 1987.
Walter Payton could punt a football 70 yards, throw it 60 and kick a field goal from 45 yards away. He bench-pressed 390 pounds and could walk across a football field on his hands. He was a punishing blocker, caught 492 passes and threw eight touchdown passes during his 13 seasons in the NFL. Despite being 5’10”, 202 pounds, he carried the football 3,838 times in his career which, at the time of his retirement in 1987, was more than anyone in history. He missed one game due to injury during his rookie season and never missed another, playing in 186 consecutive games. At the time of his retirement, Mr. Payton held the NFL record for most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards. He rushed for 1,000 or more yards in 10 straight seasons, ran for 100 or more yards in 77 games and scored 125 NFL touchdowns— never celebrating after a single one of them. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Walter Payton was voted to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, 1980s All-Decade Team and 75th Anniversary All-Time team, one of four halfbacks to receive that honor.
Mr. Payton rushed for 16, 736 yards in his career, or about 9-and-a-half miles. Bears’ head coach Mike Ditka said Payton was “the very best football player I’ve ever seen, period, at any position”. On this date in 1984, Walter Payton surpassed Jim Brown as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader.