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Walter Payton Biography

NFL Player Bio: Walter Payton

By Loot, NFL Handicapper,

Known as “Sweetness,” Walter Payton was one of the best running backs of all-time, and also one of the league’s most beloved and productive players. He still holds many records, but at one time, was the record-holder for almost every relevant running back statistic. For those of us who saw Payton play and knew how good of a person he was, it’s still hard to believe he’s gone--dead at 45 in 1999 from a rare liver disease. Rest in peace Walter and thank you for the memories.

Payton was a joy to watch on the football field. He was small at 5’10” and 200 pounds, but made mincemeat out of opposing defenders. His running had a poetic quality to it, as he deftly avoided defenders, all of whom were gunning for him. We may remember him on the 1985-86 Bears--the famous squad that won the Super Bowl. But in many seasons during Payton’s career, the Bears weren’t very good. Despite defenders being able to key in on Payton, he still ran roughshod over the NFL. For those fortunate enough to see him play, you can close your eyes and still see that deadly stutter-step, the stiff straight-arm, and how he would always punish defenders instead of just stepping out-of-bounds.

Payton had a good high school playing career, but was not heavily-recruited by major colleges. He settled on Jackson State, where despite not playing in big-time games, Payton established himself as one of the top backs in the country. Games like his 7 touchdown performance against Lane College helped bring Payton some well-deserved attention. In the 1st round of the 1975 NFL Draft, the Bears made Payton the 4th pick. They would be glad they did.


Payton had a so-so rookie season, before kicking his career into overdrive and quickly becoming one of the league’s top backs. After running for 679 yards in his rookie campaign, he ran for 1390 yards and 13 touchdowns in his second season. In 1977, his third season in the league, he ran for 1852 yards in only 14 games. He also ran for 14 touchdowns and an average of 5.5 yards per rush. At 23, he was already one of the top backs in the sport.

Picture of Walter Payton

Every season Payton played was a huge year. He was always up near the top of the league in rushing yards year after year. Following his huge 1977 season, he went on to post rushing yards totals of 1396, 1610, 1460, and 1222. He had 596 yards in the strike-shortened season of 1982. Then starting in 1983, he ran off seasons of 1421, 1684, 1551, and 1333. All told, he would rush for 16726 yards with 110 touchdowns on the ground. He even threw 8 touchdown passes. Payton was also a threat to catch balls out of the backfield, generally averaging 40-50 catches per season.

In 1984, Payton broke the long-standing career rushing record of the immortal Jim Brown, but he was far from finished. As Payton got into the latter stages of his playing career, he finally began to see his team have success. After a promising 10-6 season in 1984, the Bears really got their act together in 1985. Finally, with some major talent around him, Payton and the Bears ran out to a 15-1 record. Sweetness had another 1500-yard season. While that team is known for one of the more dominant defenses ever seen on the gridiron, Payton’s production was a big part of it. The Bears would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, becoming one of the more dominant and memorable teams of the modern era. It was disappointing for some, however, to see Payton not get a touchdown in the big game, especially in a blowout where even “Refrigerator” Perry got a taste of the end zone.

Following the Super Bowl victory, Payton would have one more good year--rushing for 1333 yards in 1986. He announced 1987 would be his final season. He split time with heir-apparent Neal Anderson, but his legacy was already secure. He retired after the season, bringing an end to one of the more amazing careers in football history.

Some of his records have been eclipsed and time may have blurred his true excellence for some. But make no mistake, when the top running backs from the past are discussed--Walter Payton’s name needs to be mentioned among the very best to ever play the game.

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