You’ll never know what made Walter Payton truly great, by watching his highlight films. Yes, he ran like a man possessed, through defenders, around defenders, over defenders, dragging defenders. Yes, he had some of the most dramatic runs in NFL history. Yes, at one point he was the all-time rushing yards leader in the NFL, the first man to surpass the legendary Jim Brown. Yes, he won a Super Bowl and played on arguably the greatest football team of all time, the 1985 Chicago Bears. But none of those things are what made him great.
As a boy, growing up in the 1970’s, in Chicago, things were bleak. Winters were long and oppressive. My father, who ironically was a former Chicago Bear football player, was never around because he wasn’t interested. When he was around, I wished he wasn’t, because he always seemed to be in a rage. I was scared of everybody in my family, because everybody in my family dominated me. Submitting, was how I survived.
But every Sunday at 12pm, Chicago, would quiet down and glue itself to Bears’ football games on TV. They weren’t a team committed to winning. They were always likable losers, who invented new ways to break your heart every week. But they had this young running back, Walter Payton, who cared far more than he should. He gave his heart and soul to every single play – running, with reckless passion, as if his life depended on it. Why would he care so much, when the team he was on didn’t?
Payton, would hold the ball vertically with two hands when he ran. On sweeps, he would high step and kick, like a drum major, before picking a hole and exploding through it. No single man ever tackled him. It always took three or four. “Never die easy,” was his motto. But the thing that made him the greatest, was something you’ll NEVER see in ANY of his highlight films — and he did it play after play. From the simplest to the most violent gang tackles, Walter Payton always popped up first, extended his hand to every other player on the ground, pulled them to their feet and patted them on their butts. This man, who played so furiously, was a gentleman at all times.
After the games ended, the boys on my block took to the streets, going door to door, gathering up bodies, until we had enough for our own game. We all talked about the game, along with the heartbreak of losing it, which was usually the case. We’d all play, pretending we were Walter Payton, holding the ball the way he did, high stepping the way he did.
Then one day, my father got tickets to a charity awards dinner and announced he was taking me and my older brother. It was to be emceed by Bill Cosby and feature a lot of sports celebrities. My brother and I donned our sports coats, clip-on ties and magnificently high afros, arriving at the dinner with our autograph books. We were gobsmacked when we saw Bill Cosby himself walking around — Jello pudding pitch man, Sesame Street regular, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids creator. When my brother and I ran up to him with our autograph books, he neither looked at us, nor said a word. He couldn’t have been less interested, but he signed a perfectly centered signature. It was disappointing, but not completely surprising. We were kids. We were used to not being important. However, as we continued to walk around, we turned the corner and there was God.
Walter Payton was sitting, surrounded by people, signing autographs, when he looked up and saw my father, who I learned later, he knew. A big bright smile erupted from his face and he got up and walked right over to US!!! I was stunned. I couldn’t move, speak or take my eyes off him. He said to my father, “Are these your kids, George?” And without waiting, he grabbed me and my brother and hugged us tightly…really tightly. I still remember the feeling of his hard muscles constricting my head, as he kissed it. He kissed ME! I couldn’t even process it. He snatched the autograph books from our hands, and in a very unCosbyesque manner, wrote full pages, telling us to follow our dreams, never give up and signed it, “Walter Payton – Sweetness #34”.
It’s still the only time in my life, I met a hero of mine, who far exceeded my expectations. To be treated with so much dignity, by somebody so important to me, at a time when I didn’t feel important to anybody, still brings tears to my eyes to this day. The world was not always bad. Sometimes light came through. I now seek this light over and over, creating my own when I can’t find it other places.
So when Walter Payton died tragically at age 45, from a rare liver disease, it hit me hard. He was family. But his spirit and what he means to me lives on. To my surprise, when other famous football players were asked about him, each and every one of them choked up at recalling a time they had a personal encounter with him. Emmitt Smith, tearfully recalled how Walter Payton had ridden along with him in the ambulance, the first time he ever got injured, reassuring him, cracking jokes. Eric Dickerson recalled Payton smiling and welcoming him to the league his rookie season, offering his time and wisdom. Mike Ditka said, “Walter Payton was not only the greatest Chicago Bear of all time, but the greatest football player who ever played the game.” Everyone he touched, felt it and was better for it. The NFL promptly renamed their “Man of the Year” award, the “Walter Payton Award” – for humanitarian achievement.
So thank you dad, for allowing me to meet him. And thank you, Walter, for showing me that greatness was real.