Payton inspired awe, fear in defenders

November 02, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Earnest Byner pointed to his office door.

"Imagine running into that door 20 to 25 times a game," the former NFL running back said, trying to describe Walter Payton's running style.

Payton wouldn't wait for the door to crack open, or seek an easier way out. He would barge through that door, barrel over a defender. It was his preferred method of getting from Point A to Point B.

"I know for a fact that when defensive players got one-on-one with Walter, they preferred that he juke them or fake them, but he ran through them," said NFL Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome.

"They hated that. But he would put that bone on them."

His nickname was "Sweetness," but Payton will be remembered for his toughness. In the end, only bile duct cancer could stop him, causing his death yesterday at the age of 45.

What a recent period in sports.

First, the death of Wilt Chamberlain, a basketball player who was larger than life even at 62.

Then, the death of Payne Stewart, a golfer who had turned his game and life around at 42.

And now Payton, the Chicago Bears' legend.

There's no way to make sense of it. A 7-foot Hercules dying of heart failure. A U.S. Open golf champion dying in a plane crash. The leading rusher in NFL history dying from cancer on top of a rare liver disease that could be cured only by a transplant.

"It lets you know how fragile life really is," said Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel.

Payton wasn't just a Hall of Fame running back. He was an unselfish team player, a devoted family man, a class act who commanded respect from one of the toughest coaches in sports, Mike Ditka.

Remember when Ditka allowed William "Refrigerator" Perry to rush for an easy touchdown instead of Payton in the Bears' 46-10 triumph over New England in the 1986 Super Bowl? It was a gross violation of football etiquette, an unnecessary slight of a player who badly wanted to culminate his career by scoring in the Super Bowl.

Ditka later apologized.

Payton wasn't the biggest back at 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds. But he would think nothing of leveling an opponent with a forearm, and he never ran out of bounds.

His high-pitched voice was almost comically misleading, and his reputation as the Bears' leading practical joker offered little comfort to defenses around the NFL.

Consider the first impression that Payton made on Jack Del Rio, an NFL linebacker for 11 seasons.

"I remember how well he blocked," said Del Rio, the Ravens' linebackers coach. "I came on a blitz, and he put his helmet right on my chin. I learned that's the way he was all the time."

Byner had his own favorite memory, recalling when a defender told him, "You couldn't just tackle Walter Payton. You had to actually see him on the ground to know you had made the tackle."

The final image of Payton was from last February, when he looked gaunt and weary at a news conference, informing the world of his disease. The scene was jarring. Like Chamberlain, Payton had been a model of fitness, even after retiring.

He came from Columbia, Miss., then excelled at Jackson State. He was the fourth pick in the 1975 draft, and he spent a decade playing for terrible Bears teams. Through it all, no one worked harder.

"There has been so much written about Jerry Rice and Cris Carter and their whole regimen," Newsome said. "Walter did that in the '70s, running in the Mississippi Delta. You're talking about one of the most well-conditioned athletes of our time."

Ditka, now coaching the New Orleans Saints, agreed.

"He was the hardest-working guy we had," said Ditka, who coached Payton for six seasons in Chicago. "He was the first guy there and the last to leave. He came to camp in the best shape of anybody I've ever seen, and he did it all on his own."

Payton once took off from the 2-yard line against Buffalo and landed on his head a yard deep in the end zone. He rushed for 275 yards in a single game, a record that still stands. And he missed only one game due to injury, a Cal Ripken-esque feat for an NFL back, especially one who ran so hard.

As with Ripken, other players couldn't relate to Payton's skill and endurance. Byner said he didn't sit and rest when the defense was on the field against Payton's Bears. He stood on the sidelines and watched, awe-struck.

"I would definitely have to say he was a freak of nature, to do that year after year without sustaining a lot of injuries," Byner said. "And he probably had one of the strongest minds of any player in NFL history."

He would block you under the chin. He would stiff-arm you out of the stadium. He thought nothing of hurling his body into larger men in the meanest, toughest sport of all.

There's no way to make sense of this.

Walter Payton is gone.

In the books

The NFL record-setting rushing numbers in the career of Wlater Payton:

16,726

Career yards

3,838

Career rushes

275

Yards gained in a game vs. Minnesota, Nov. 20, 1977

77

Career games with 100 or more yards

10

Seasons with 1,000 or more yards (1976-1981, 1983-1986), tied for first

4

Consecutive seasons leading league in attempts (1976-1979), tied for first

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