Ten Years Later, The World Will Never Forget The Man They Called Sweetness

Ryan MichaelSenior Writer IIIFebruary 23, 2009

He is a man gone, but not forgotten.

It was ten years ago this November that the sporting world lost one of the absolute greats. It was ten years ago that the National Football League lost it's most productive running back. It was ten years ago that the people of the world lost a magnificent human being.

Walter Jerry Payton was no ordinary football player. He was a phenomenal athlete and a courageous man.

Perhaps never before or since have the fans of professional football been blessed with a player who had been so exceedingly prodigious both on and off the field.

Payton left behind a legacy so profound that his name alone transcends the conceptualizations we have created that define greatness. As we stand ten years removed from his death, the legacy he left behind will never be forgotten.

Let's take a look back at Payton's amazing career, for it was through the venue of sports that the world came to know him.

From 1971 to 1974, Payton made a name for himself at Jackson State University. He was a dangerous runner and a versatile threat. In his freshman year, Payton gained rushing yards, receiving yards, threw for passing yards, and kicked field goals.

The various exploitation of his talents were used in moderation and Payton continued to exceed at various aspects of the game. It was here where he had been given the nickname "Sweetness".

Often speculated to represent his personality, athletic grace, and his ironic depiction of aggressive playing style, the nickname managed to stick with him throughout the remainder of his life.

By the time he finished his college career, he had scored an NCAA record of 65 total touchdowns and such exceptional production made him a hot commodity by the time of the 1975 NFL Draft.

At that time, the Chicago Bears had long suffered after the premature end of Gale Sayers' career. The team had a difficult time finding a suitable replacement and as a result, the running game struggled.

So in 1975, the Chicago Bears selected Payton with the fourth overall selection in the first round. His career with the Bears did not begin as well as it had ended.

In his first game, Payton gained zero net yards on eight carries. Luckily, his professional debut proved to be drastically different from the remainder of his career.

Payton played 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears (1975-1987) and became the most prolific running back in NFL history. Over the course of his career, he totaled 16,726 rushing yards (averaging 4.4 yards per carry) and 110 rushing touchdowns.

He was also a versatile threat in the receiving game, totalling 492 receptions for 4,538 yards and an additional 15 touchdowns. He gained 21,803 total net-yards in only 13 seasons.

Various accolades include being selected to the Pro Bowl nine times, being named All-Pro nine times, being named the league MVP in 1977 and earning Pro Bowl MVP honors that same season.

Perhaps his greatest achievement came in a game that he never scored a touchdown.

Payton's Chicago Bears finished the 1985 season 18-1 after destroying the New England Patriots by the score of 46-10 in a game where the Bears were so dominant that they chose to have William "The Refrigerator" Perry run in for a go-ahead touchdown to further establish their dominance.

Head coach Mike Ditka later called the decision to let Perry score a touchdown instead of Payton the worst decision of his coaching career.

Despite the disappointment of not scoring a Super Bowl touchdown, the victory over the Patriots was a culmination of Payton's hard work over the course of his career.

After retiring in 1987, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, which was the first year he became eligible.

Nine years later, tragedy struck.

In February of 1999, Payton was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune liver disease called Primary Cholangiocarcinoma Cholangitis.

The disease increased the risk of developing tiny tumors inside the bile ducts of his liver.

By the time he received the diagnosis, his disease was too far along for him to qualify for a liver transplant. Instead, Payton was forced to live the remaining months of his life knowing that he was going to die.

Instead of being consumed by the tragic fate he was having to face, Payton instead chose to make an impact. He spent the remaining months of his life as an advocate for organ transplants.

Payton appeared in commercials that urged people to donate organs that could help save lives. Payton gave every bit of what he had left in life to inform the people of what they could do to help save lives.

Even in the face of death, Payton found greater value in using what little time he had left to help save others.

His motto was, "Never die easy," a quote that he embodied on the football field.

It was at this point that Payton had taken that motto and lived by it.

This time, to never die easy meant never to give up in the face of adversity. Never die easy meant that he would make a lasting impact, far greater than anything he had ever done on the football field.

Payton, while dying, gave everything he could so people in the future would be able to appreciate the gift of living.

On November 1, 1999, the world lost the life of the man they called "Sweetness".

At 45 years old, Payton had given this world a lifetime's worth of memories and an eternities worth of inspiration. His greatness of the football field was only overshadowed by his personification of heroism off of it.

Payton was much more than a football player, he was a truly special human being. He was a man whose impact outside the sporting world was far greater than the brilliance he displayed in it.

Almost ten years after his passing, the world will never forget the man they called Sweetness.