ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — On a steep hill some 30 miles northwest of Chicago, Kevin Kelly learned a lesson from Walter Payton about the value of hard work.
“To me, the competitiveness of Walter, and the rawness of his competitiveness and just his work ethic, I think we all could learn from that,” Kelly said.
For five years during the off-season, he ran and trained with Payton, sprinting up a 45 degree slope on a landfill that has since been transformed into the Nickol Knoll golf course.
“This was a landfill area, so it smelled,” Kelly said on a recent visit back to the hill. “It was nasty. You’ll see by the picture, there was glass, I mean you could get hurt if you fell. It really wasn’t a pleasant place at all.”
The story of how Kelly and Payton met is an unlikely tale of how a chance encounter blossomed into a long-time friendship.
When Kelly was a 17-year-old senior at Barrington High School, he went to a 24-hour gym to workout late one night. It was around midnight, and there was only one other person lifting weights.
“I could feel him walking toward me,” Kelly said. “I figured I was bothering him or something, so I started gathering my stuff up, and he was like, ‘hey, where are you going?’ I was wondering if I could train with you.”
It was Walter Payton – one of the most famous athletes in America. The man known as “Sweetness” was on the cover of Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and the Wheaties box. He was now standing in front of Kelly.
Payton put him through the toughest workout of his life, and afterwards offered to do it again.
“I told him, ‘hey, I’m going to call you tomorrow.’ He said, ‘no you won’t, you’ll tell your buddies we did this and you’ll be too sore, I won’t see you again.’ I was like, ‘well, you met the right guy tonight,’” Kelly said.
Kelly went on to play football at Indiana University, but in the spring and summer he continued to train with Payton.
“I was just happy he has a partner that could go and keep up, and Kevin was determined,” said Connie Payton, Walter’s widow “He was going to do it, and he did it. He kept up with him.”
“We were not connected by talent, we were not connected by our backgrounds. It was our love of football and our work ethic,” Kelly said said.
Payton and Kelly became close friends. Kelly even coached Payton’s son Jarrett in High School at St. Viator.
Kelly is now a college scout for the Los Angeles Chargers, and reflected on the special bond he forged with the most famous football player in the world when he was just a teenager.
“I miss him,” Kelly said. “I think about him. Last twenty years, I’ve worked in the NFL for four teams, and I’ve never scouted anybody like him.”