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13 years later, Walter Payton’s legend lives on

Walter Payt1999

Walter Payton in 1999

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(Note: Bears great Walter Payton died 13 years ago today. This is a reprint of Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander’s tribute from Nov. 2, 1999, one day after “Sweetness” passed at age 45.)


Who here among us is guaranteed long life?

They say the good die young, but they die at all ages.

Not one second is promised to any person, even to the sweetest.

“My coach at Jackson State always said, `If you’re going to die anyway, die hard,’ “ Walter Payton said a decade or so ago, explaining why he never gave up on a play.

And he wouldn’t have given up on the liver disease and subsequent cancer that killed him Monday at age 45, except his cells and enzymes didn’t have quite the resolve that Sweetness, the die-hard guy, did.

It’s an odd thing, but when a man passes before his time, he becomes locked in amber.

We’ll never see Payton grow old.

The rest of us, if we’re so blessed, will age and gray and bend gradually to a kind of peace. But as we do, Walter Payton will stay as he is, as he was: a not-overly-large bundle of steel cables and iron peens hammering away at the enemy, whoever - whatever - that may have been.

The film footage is there, and the images of this back who ran for more NFL yardage than anyone before or since will yellow and fade. But they won’t vanish. A diligent archivist could reel up hour upon hour of Payton exploits - the 199 games as a Bear, the 40-plus games at Jackson State, the 20 or so games at Columbia (Miss.) High. An archivist could even screen footage of Payton as a finalist at the “Soul Train” TV show dance contest in Los Angeles a quarter century ago.

There won’t be much dwelling on Walter at the end.

The gaunt, yellow-eyed, nauseous, exhausted victim whose body simply turned against itself will remain largely out of view, out of remembrance.

And that is the way Sweetness wanted it.

This complex but childlike and joyful man who performed such amazing feats in front of mesmerized crowds was never comfortable being analyzed or exposed to the masses. He had the warrior’s code. Weaknesses had to be covered up, ignored even by the bearer himself, because the bearer was, through and through, a warrior. A running back. And a weak running back is nothing.

Payton had more nervous energy than a rabbit on methedrine.

At times he would bolt out of his house, jump into one of his automobiles and drive it around the block and park it exactly where it had been, “for something to do.”

He would talk to anybody, anywhere.

Everybody knew Walter couldn’t sit still and get too deep. He needed to move, move, move, not dissect.

He needed people, not their inquiries. In the 1986 Bears media guide, Payton listed his interests as “drums, antique cars, privacy.”

It became clear months ago that Payton was dying of this infernal disease. There were the missed appointments, the missed shows, the beeper that never went off, the beeper we now know never came.

But it would have killed him even sooner if the public had known how ill he really was, if concerned, meddling people had offered up the unctuous sympathy that would have made him feel so weak, so helpless, so common.

Pride? His pride may have been the only thing stronger than his stiff-arm.

No, Payton wasn’t always transcendent.

I remember him carrying the ball 40 times for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977. But I also remember him rushing 20 times for eight yards against the New Orleans Saints in 1982. I even remember him rushing 10 times for zero yards against the Detroit Lions in his rookie year, 1975.

He was mortal, and at times he was flawed.

But if he was not a hero, then we don’t have them anymore.

He did things no other man has done. He remained strong against the storm. He played a tough game with even tougher resolve.

If it is true that we measure men by what they do under pressure and adversity, Payton’s measurement leaps off the chart.

He wasn’t big.

As late as 1986, he was listed at 202 pounds, down from 204 in 1977. He ran on knees that were virtually destroyed, with shoulders that were nearly out of their sockets, and who ever knew? Sweetness wasn’t telling. Sweetness wasn’t even noticing.

I always will remember walking with him and interviewing him while exploring the grounds for the new home he was building in Barrington in 1984. He had a bow and arrow with him and he was firing at God knows what. Birds, stumps, the middle of his pond. When all the arrows were gone, he got fidgety. Then he started yanking trees out of the ground.

Some of them were as big around as Louisville Sluggers. Bend this way. Crack. Bend that way. Crunch. Then grasp, heave, and in an explosion of soil and earthy aroma, Payton would have a fully-rooted tree in his hands.

Again and again.

It looked so easy, I had to try it.

But the trees I pulled on were embedded in concrete.

They budged not at all. Good Lord, this was insane. Yet there went Walter. Crack, crunch - another tree.

“Come on,” he said, yanking, heaving. “Ask questions!”

But I couldn’t. I was laughing too hard.

I thought of the Sword in the Stone. And young King Arthur.

And how some legends most certainly are true.

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