Payton inspired even to final day

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 3, 1999

The news of Walter Payton’s death stunned the sports world Monday even though everyone knew the inevitable day would come after his heartbreaking news conference in February.

Payton let the world know that he was suffering from sclerosing cholangitis and needed a liver transplant.

What we didn’t know was that the NFL’s all-time leading rusher had cancer, too. Cancer of the bile duct had spread so rapidly that Payton was taken off the transplant list.

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Payton didn’t play football until he was in the 11th grade in Columbia. His main interest was music. The first time he touched the ball, Payton ran 60-yards for a touchdown.

The next stop was Jackson State University and football stardom. The Chicago Bears made Payton its top draft pick in 1975 and Soldier Field became Payton Place.

Whether he was high-stepping into the end zone, participating in the Soul Train dance contest or hosting Saturday Night Live, Payton was always having fun and was always a good amassador for the state of Mississippi.

In 1974, Payton finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won the trophy. Griffin would have a less than stellar career. Payton would break Jim Brown’s all-time rushing mark.

When Payton retired, he had 16,726 yards rushing on 3,838 carries. Payton ran hard on every play and refused to run out of bounds. His style was to attack the defensive player. He stiff-arms were delivered with a startling jolt to a would-be tackler.

The fact that Payton only missed one game in a 13-year career is startling. That statistic alone speaks volumes on Payton’s toughness.

Behind the scenes, Payton was the team practical joker and inspirational leader.

Bill McGrane, Director of Operations for the Chicago Bears, wrote of Payton in a personal recollection of the man known as &uot;Sweetness&uot;.

&uot;Some years ago, Walter agreed to meet a boy before practice. The boy was 10, but he wouldn’t see 11 … he had a brain tumor. When Walter came out on the field to meet the child, a crowd began swarming, wanting autographs. He was polite, but very firm. ‘After practice,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to Kevin right now.’

&uot;He took the boy who was dying and the two of them walked to a far corner of the practice field where they sat down on a blocking dummy. The boy had on a baseball cap because he didn’t have much hair left. Walter grabbed the cap off his head and replaced it with his helmet. He wore the boy’s cap. They talked for a long time. That fall, I heard the boy had died. I told Payton.

&uot;He said it was all right, because the boy hadn’t been fearful.&uot;

The phrase carpe diem could best describe Payton’s approach to life and death.

In February’s press conference, Payton told the gathering of reporters about how he would deal with the rare liver disease.

&uot;It’s just like football. You never know when or what your last play is going to be. You just play it and play it because you love it. Same way with life.

&uot;You live life because you love it. If you can’t love it, you just give up hope.&uot;

Walter Payton loved life. All Mississippians should be proud and pay tribute to one of her native sons.

Tim Isbell is creative director at The Democrat.

He can be reached at 446-5172 ext. 233 or by e-mail at