Around the middle of a football season that trudges into the heart of autumn, my thoughts always take me back to one man – Walter Payton.
Two years ago on this day, Sweetness passed away from bile duct cancer.
Payton was a phenomenal running back for 13 years as a Chicago Bear. He missed only one game all those years. Sweetness could run, throw, block and pass like nobody else on the gridiron, considering he was only 5’10” and 202 pounds in his prime.
I remember him as being the greatest back to ever live – nobody else comes close. He was graceful, articulate, ferocious, unrelenting, compelling, improvisational, intense and beautiful every time he stepped out onto the field and cradled the ball in those delicate, gripping hands.
Payton was always the epitome of selflessness.
I remember the picture of him sitting alone on the steel bench at Soldier Field during his last game in 1987. His elbows rest against padded knees, hands cover his helmet as if in prayer. He is sitting solemnly as if in a spiritual ascension to achieve absolute serenity. The spectators seem to flutter in the background, bunched up in winter coats; their breath making pillars of evaporating smoke in the air. They are smiling and aggravated all at the same time. Even in his most solitary moment, Payton is there to resonate his love to everyone else.
Recalling the bustling noises of congestion in Chicago and the windy, stubborn columns of Soldier Field on the Lakefront – I always think of Payton.
Today, I wish Sweetness was still around. The Bears are 5-1 for the first time in 12 years, and are sitting alone in the NFC Central. Mayor Daley denied corporate sponsorship of renaming Soldier Field. The Bears boast rookie standout Anthony Thomas who broke Payton’s rookie rushing record with 188 yards against Cincinnati two weekends ago in a 24-0 road win.
Yet more than ever, I wish Walter Payton was still alive, would still have time to fight off the liver disease than devastated his body, but failed to damper his impenetrable spirit.
Payton was such a good human being that his genuine, sweet nature would make people feel better about themselves. Players today are just machines that can run, jump and bench more than anyone in the past imagined. They’re more technically gifted than mentally prepared for the rigors on the field. Today’s athletes show little character on and off the field, a trait that Sweetness exhibited throughout his entire life.
Considering how athletes are being looked up to as an outlet for happiness since the horrific events of Sept. 11, not enough of that joy is resonating back with the fans. A few exceptions of players giving back to their fans, in my mind, are Curt Schilling of the Arizona Diamondbacks, members of the New York Giants and Jets, and maybe Michael Jordan.
Nobody tried to make people happy more than Sweetness. Knowing he had only days to live, Payton didn’t tell anyone except those closest to him that he was dying.
Walter only wanted to bring people joy, so he didn’t want to make the severity of his illness public, according to Sports Illustrated reporter Dan Yaeger, who spent time with Payton during the last few weeks of his life. His death was a shock because no one knew what was going on with him physically. But Payton always retained a dignified, noble strength, even at his deathbed.
Sweetness-thank you for being a great man. Thank you for making people a little happier with your selflessness on and off the field.