CHICAGO – Monday marks what would have been Walter Payton’s 68th birthday. The Chicago Bears legend was born July 25, 1954.
It’s also almost been 23 years since his death, yet the memory of “Sweetness” still lives on every day.
His son, Jarrett Payton saw proof of that last week when he paid a visit to his father’s statue outside of Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The WGN Sports anchor ran into a fan from Germany who told him he was a big Bears fan, not realizing Jarrett’s relation to Walter.
“Speechless,” is how Jarrett described the man when he told him that the NFL legend was his father.
Yet so many through the years have had plenty to say when it comes to Payton. The Bears running back arrived in Chicago in 1975 as the fourth-overall pick in that year’s draft out of Jackson State and immediately established himself a player to be reckoned with in the league.
The numbers speak for themselves for Payton in his career with the Bears that lasted from 1975-1987:
- 16,726 Rushing Yards – An NFL record that stood from 1984-2002
- 9 Pro Bowl selections
- 5 First Team All-Pro selections
- 3 Second Team All-Pro selections
- 1977 NFL MVP, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, rushing yards leader, NFL Man of the Year
- 6 Playoff appearances with the Bears
- Super Bowl XX championship in the 1985 season
- NFL 100th Anniversary Team member
- Named No. 1 Player in Bears’ History by the franchise in 2019
Payton’s play on the field endeared him to fans as the intelligent, hard-nosed, blue-collar player became the face of the franchise and is still celebrated to this day. His number was retired after his last season with the Bears in 1987, with many not only considering him the greatest running back in NFL history but also in the running for the best player in the league no matter the position.
The ultimate honor for Payton came on July 31, 1993, when he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio as part of the Class of ’93. Jarrett Payton introduced his father before the Hall of Fame speech.
“You know when I first got here we made a wager who would be the first one to break down in tears,” he said. “And I was the first one to say that I wouldn’t. And I was the first one to say how strong I was and everything else. As it goes to show that a lot of times when you are amongst your peers such as these great athletes, you try to be something that you are not. And after hearing my son get up here and talk, I don’t care if I lose the bet.”
Even at this lowest moment, the diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease, Payton once again showed the fight that defined him as a player. He continued to battle the disease until his death on November 1, 1999.
All of these stories of Payton’s life are a reason he remains an icon for generations of fans in Chicago.
In tribute to his birthday, WGN News Now has a special edition of “The 9-Yard Line” to look back on the career of the Hall of Famer. That includes our picks for “The 9 Sweetest Moments” of his legendary career with the Bears.
Jarrett Payton also took some time to say a few words about his father on what would have been his 68th birthday.
You can watch the special edition of “The 9-Yard Line” with Larry Hawley in the video above.