'Sweetness' and might

Dead at 45, Payton was rock as runner, embraceable as man

Records only part of legend

1954-1999

November 02, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Near the end of Walter Payton's 1993 induction speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he said: "I am going to close by saying life is short. It is oh, so sweet."

Payton, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, couldn't have known how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

His life was sweet, but it was, oh, so short.

He died yesterday at the age of 45 of cancer of the bile ducts, which carry digestive fluids from the liver to the small intestine.

Payton looked gaunt and frail when he announced in February he had a rare liver disease called PCS (primary schlerosing cholangitis).

He had hoped he could survive if he had a liver transplant, but his doctor, Greg Gores of the Mayo Clinic, announced yesterday that the bile duct cancer made such a transplant impossible.

Gores declined to say when the cancer was discovered, but said, "The malignancy was very advanced and progressed very rapidly."

When his son, Jarrett, left the University of Miami football team last Wednesday to visit his father, who died at his home near Chicago, it was a sign that death was near. At least two radio stations even announced it Sunday, a day before it took place.

Payton was nicknamed "Sweetness" for his moves on the football field during his 13-year career with the Chicago Bears, but it also applied to his easygoing personality. He never seemed affected by his celebrity status, and he enjoyed playing practical jokes on his teammates.

At an emotional news conference at the Bears' complex, Jarrett said, "The outpouring of love and support and prayers [after the announcement in February] astounded even him."

Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of Bears founder George Halas, barely kept her composure as she said, "Walter Payton came into our lives " She stopped as she fought back tears, then continued, "And you all know what a difference he's made for all of us."

Former teammate Mike Singletary, who read scriptures with him in his final days, said Payton never questioned why he had suffered such a fate.

"Walter was the kind of individual who refused to say, `Why me, why now?,' " Singletary said.

The public figures who expressed their grief included President Clinton.

The president said Payton fought his illness "with the same grit and determination he showed every week on the football field."

The president added, "In the long highlight reel of this life cut short, Walter Payton will always be a man in motion, breaking tackles, breaking records, clearing every obstacle in his path."

Former Bulls star Michael Jordan said: "Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there. He was a great man off the field and his on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves."

Payton virtually rewrote the NFL record book. He holds the league records for rushing yardage in a career (16,726) and a game (275). He also holds the records for 100-yard games (77), 1,000-yard seasons (10, tied with Barry Sanders) and total yards (21,803).

The records, though, were not the measure of the man.

Mike Ditka, who was his coach in 1985 when he won his lone Super Bowl ring, said at a news conference in New Orleans. where Ditka now coaches the Saints: "He was the best football player I've ever seen and probably one of the best people I've ever met. He was just a good guy."

Ditka added: "He had a lot greater impact on my life than I had on his."

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, got to know Payton because the Bears star shared the same agent with one of Newsome's teammates in Cleveland, Hanford Dixon.

"I don't think anybody played with as much heart as Walter Payton," Newsome said. "Nobody outworked Walter. People talk about the workouts that Jerry Rice and Cris Carter do, but Walter was doing that in the 1970s."

Payton, who was 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, kept himself in top shape.

He was such a complete player that he was also considered a great blocker, a talent that most top running backs never develop.

He was also incredibly durable. In his rookie season, he had a minor ankle injury when the team went to Pittsburgh to play a Steeler team that was en route to its second Super Bowl title.

Rather than give the Steel Curtain a chance to aggravate the injury in a game the Bears couldn't win (Chicago lost, 34-3), the coaches suggested he sit it out.

After the game, a Chicago reporter said to him, "Jim Brown never did that."

"Did what?" Payton asked.

"Missed a game," the reporter answered.

Payton never missed another.

When Payton played his final game in Baltimore in 1983, the year before the team moved, he was ailing and carried only three times for 4 yards. But he didn't miss the game.

When he broke Jim Brown's career rushing record in 1984, it was typical of him that he saluted three men whose careers were cut short by death -- David Overstreet, Joe Dulaney and Brian Piccolo. Piccolo was a former Bear and his friendship with Gale Sayers became the basis for the book and movie, "Brian's Song."

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