Walter Payton Remembered Ten Years After His Death

Alan RubensteinAnalyst IIINovember 6, 2009

It has been 10 mostly trying years for the franchise Sweetness called home since his death on Nov. 1, 1999. Payton remains the most revered Bear even 10 years after his passing. What he meant to the franchise, Bears' fans and Chicago will never be forgotten.

To the fans, Payton will remembered as a durable running back who retired with the National Football League's single game and career rushing records. Most fans will remember his stiff arms, leaps over the pile at the goal line for touchdowns and as a punishing runner that chose contact over going out of bounds.

When Payton joined the Bears, they had been trying to replace Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers for four years. Sayers had to retire after only six NFL seasons because of knee injuries.

Payton was the catalyst to the Bears rebuilding effort to turn their franchise around.  They did not have a winning season in the seven years prior to Payton's arrival. By his third season, 1977, the Bears advanced to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. They made it again in 1979, before another five year drought.

After being the face of the team for eights seasons, the Bears finally began a special run in 1984.  Payton led the NFL in carries from 1976-79.  During that period, the Bears offense was considered Payton right, Payton left and Payton up the middle.

During the 1984 season the reliance on Payton carrying the franchise changed. Led by an attacking defense and the power running game, the Bears began their ascent back to the NFL elite.

They won their first division title since 1963 and upset the defending NFC champion Washington Redskins in the playoffs.  The win advanced the Bears to their first of three conference championship game appearances in five years.

The culmination of Payton's career occurred with the Bears win in Super Bowl XX following the 1985 season. Controversy seemed to follow the '85 Bears, but Payton was usually immune to it. During the post game celebration, Payton was upset after not scoring a touchdown. 

His play for the Bears during their down years earned him a chance to celebrate in the end zone.  Bears coach Mike Ditka chose to give the ball to the Refrigerator, William Perry at the goal line.

Payton's only other publicized controversy during a 13-year career was when he bumped the head linesman during a game and was ejected. Payton was upset over a fumble call that went against him and claims the bump was accidental.

He led the Bears in rushing for a final time in 1986. His final year was 1987 and Payton passed the torch to Neal Anderson. Anderson became the first player other than Payton to lead the Bears in rushing since 1974. 

In addition to retiring with the game and season rushing records, Payton also held the all-time Touchdown record when he hung up his cleats.

Payton was an incredibly diverse person. He didn't slow down at all after retiring from football.  He owned a chain of successful nightclubs in Chicago during the late 1980's and 1990's. Studebaker's, Thirty-Four's and America's bar were among Payton's ventures. Payton's Roundhouse remains in operation in Aurora, Illinois.

He also loved to race cars and bought into the Dale Coyne CART racing team. Payton kept in touch with his fans by hosting a weekly radio show during the NFL season in the nineties.

Sweetness was probably the most beloved athlete in Chicago.  Michael Jordan was more accomplished, more well known globally and the driving force behind the most successful team in Chicago sports history.

Payton was the one Chicago sports fans related to.  He was more the everyman. He was an approachable figure that loved to connect with his fans.

The day Payton broke Jim Brown's NFL career rushing record, he had to share the spotlight with the Cubs collapse against the San Diego Padres.  The day was considered one of the two biggest sports days in Chicago sports history. 

Payton announced that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis in February 1999. The disease was going to require Payton to eventually get a liver transplant.  PSC attacks the bile ducts and probably led to Payton contracting cancer.

Once Payton contracted cancer, he became ineligible for the transplant. The announcement of Payton's illness came as a shock to Chicagoans and Bears fans everywhere.  He was an incredibly durable player during his 13 career. That Walter Payton was in for the fight of his life seemed surreal.

Payton died on Nov. 1, 1999.  He had a public funeral at Solider Field and his private service was attended by over 1,000 people.  The private service was attended by many dignitaries from a wide spectrum of life.

The Bears first game after an emotional week was fittingly at Green Bay. The two match-ups between the NFL's oldest rivals are marked on the calendar annually by fans of both teams. The Bears received help from an angel to win the game.  It what has been dubbed as the immaculate rejection, the Bears defeated the Packers 14-13. 

Bears defensive end Bryan Robinson blocked Ryan Longwell's 28-yard field goal attempt as the clock expired. The blocked field goal secured the Bears first win over the Packers since 1993 and ended a 10-game losing streak to Green Bay. After the game, Robinson said "I think Walter reached down and picked me up because I can't jump that high."

Payton will always have a legacy in Chicago. His widow Connie helps to continue Payton's mission to educate people about the importance or organ donation through Payton's foundation. His son Jarrett was the MVP of the 2004 Orange Bowl for Miami and his daughter Brittany is a reporter for the Big Ten network.

Present day Bears games still see many fans wearing the No. 34 Jersey 22 years after his retirement. Payton's Roadhouse, Coyne Racing, a High School in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood that Bears his name and the NFL's Man of the Year Award all carry on his legacy.