'Sweetness' Still One of a Kind

Payton died of bile duct cancer on Nov. 1, 1999

I have a few memories from childhood that will never disappear: seeing "Star Wars" for the first time, the genuine excitement over a bowl of Lucky Charms, and hitting that grand slam to win the Little League All-Star tournament come to mind. If you look at the older family photo albums lying around my mom's house, I'm wearing my No. 34 Chicago Bears jersey more often than not.

If I were a running back in the National Football League, there are a few places I would love to play.

The offensive line in Denver seems to turn every sixth-round draft pick into a 1,500-yard rusher. A bunch of backs have made a name for themselves as runners and receivers in that San Francisco west coast offense. The legendary smash-mouth style of 'The Hogs' back in the 1980s still casts a pretty long shadow in Washington.

Perhaps unfairly here in Chicago, any tailback will inevitably be compared to Walter Payton.

16,726 rushing yards. Ten 1,000-yard seasons. Nine Pro Bowls. In one year or another, he led the NFL in carries, rushing yards, total yards from scrimmage, rushing touchdowns, and total touchdowns. But for those of us who grew up idolizing Payton, it wasn't the statistics that made his career so unforgettable.

Neal Anderson had three consecutive seasons over 1,000 yards for the Bears while scoring double-digit touchdowns, but he never went out of his way to deliver a punishing blow to a linebacker who outweighed him by 50 pounds. Raymont Harris may have been known as the 'Ultra-Back' during his short Windy City tenure, but he never spring-boarded himself over the top en route to the end zone like a dolphin at Sea World. Anthony Thomas cracked the 1,000-yard plateau two of his first three seasons just as Payton did, but 'A-Train' missed more games in each of his four years as a Midway Monster than 'Sweetness' did in his entire 13-year Hall-of-Fame career – he failed to suit up just once.

I won't even mention the likes of Rashaan Salaam and Curtis Enis for fear of waking up next to the head of my prized thoroughbred horse.

Aside from the mind-boggling numbers that he posted on some pretty awful teams, Payton had that indefinable quality that made fans creep to the edge of their seats and jointly stand in anticipation. Every time he got his hands on the football, I just got a tingly feeling that something magical was about to happen. A stutter-step here, bouncing off a tackler there, that trademark high step once he broke into the secondary – Payton played the game with a signature style all his own.

Emmitt Smith broke Payton's all-time rushing record in 2002, but he did the majority of his damage alongside an All-Pro quarterback in Troy Aikman, an All-Pro possession receiver in Michael Irvin, an All-Pro pass-catching and run-blocking tight end in Jay Novacek, and arguably the most dominant offensive line in the history of the league. Larry Allen, Ray Donaldson, Kevin Gogan, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski, Ron Stone, Mark Tuinei, and Erik Williams all helped pave the way for Smith, and each has at least two Pro Bowl selections to his credit.

During Payton's term as the top face on the Bears totem pole, six different quarterbacks led the team in passing, including laughable names like Gary Huff and Vince Evans. None of them ever threw for 3,000 yards in a season. Likewise, six different wideouts led the team in receiving. Everyone from Bo Rather to Ken Margerum. How many of them ever surpassed the 1,000-yard mark? Zero. Although Payton did run behind a few solid blockers like Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg, none of them has a bust in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jim Brown and Earl Campbell were bruising bulls who simply overpowered defenses with their incredible combination of size and strength. Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders were electrifying open-field runners, never giving tacklers a chance to get a clean shot at them. Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson were speed merchants, track stars in pads who were gone in the flash of an eye once they fought their way through the line of scrimmage.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Payton, on the other hand, didn't really have a defining physical attibute.

At 5'10" and about 200 pounds, Payton was fairly undersized by NFL standards. In today's game, he may have run the risk of being thrown into that too-small-to-be-an-every-down-back category that dooms a lot of diminutive ball carriers coming out of the collegiate ranks. Nevertheless, he was infamous for punishing larger defenders and dishing out big hits instead of taking them.

In the Mel Kiper Jr. world of professional football, a prospect can drop a round or two in the NFL Draft because of a one-tenth of a second deficiency in his 40-yard dash time. Payton never made a scout do a double-take at his stopwatch when he came out of little-known Jackson State in 1975. Even so, his supposed lack of game-breaking speed didn't prevent him from finding paydirt 125 times or averaging 4.4 yards per carry for his career.

He just wanted it more. He worked harder. He made himself tougher. And despite all his ferocious intensity and unruly competitiveness on the field, he was always the happy-go-lucky practical joker in the locker room. A family man. A giving man. A man of honesty, integrity, and charity.

Grown men don't like to cry. Football players would rather soak a fresh cut in salt and lemon juice than cry. When Payton held a press conference in February 1999 and announced to the world that he had cancer, he cried uncontrollably. This larger-than-life figure had convinced football fans he was indestructible. Yet there he was, tired, frail, and needing to be consoled by his young son Jarrett. There was a memorial service at Soldier Field after he passed away that November, and the collective stream of tears could have raised the level of Lake Michigan an inch or two.

Bears fans have been criticized in recent years for holding on to the past. The 1985 squad that won Super Bowl XX is widely considered to be the greatest team in NFL history, and the bevy of colorful characters on the roster made that championship season even more treasured.

The gum-chomping fury of 'Da Coach' Mike Ditka. Quarterback Jim McMahon probably slept in those sunglasses like Jake and Elwood Blues. William 'The Refrigerator' Perry as the league's most unlikely part-time fullback. The freshly-electrocuted glare of middle linebacker Mike Singletary. And no one could forget the unintentional comedy that was The Super Bowl Shuffle. The only thing missing was Shannon Tweed running the front office like the old HBO original series 1st and Ten.

Nevertheless, the heart that pumped life into the Bears was Payton. In many ways, he still does.

I remember going to Soldier Field as a kid wearing my No. 34 jersey, and every time Sweetness was given the ball, my father would grab me by the armpits and hoist me in the air to give me a better view. There it was. That tingly feeling. Something magical just might happen.

I know I'm not the only one who misses that feeling. There are still plenty of No. 34 jerseys being worn around Chicago these days.

John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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