By Chuck Mindenhall
December 12, 2016
Walter Payton was a running back that inspired a resiliency of spirit, both on and off the field
I can still remember really watching Walter Payton the first time as a kid back in 1981, when the Denver Broncos visited Soldier Field with a chance to make the playoffs in the final week of the season. Chicago wasn’t very good. They were just 5-10 heading into the game, nothing to play for. And Denver — my team — was 10-5, with everything to play for. All the Broncos had to do was get by the Bears to beat out the San Diego Chargers and make the playoffs. But they didn’t beat the Bears.
It was the first time I had my heart truly broken in sports.
It was single-digit temperatures in late December, and Payton was like Zeus — he was like the spirit of the game itself, the way the commentators talked of him, his presence, his imprint on football. He was the frigid air. I half expected him to levitate onto the field. He was still a couple of years away from breaking Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record, but he’d already dashed O.J. Simpson’s single-game record in 1977, and he did with a severe cold. Long before Michael Jordan’s heroics in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals playing with the flu, Payton was quite literally playing out of his feverish god-loving mind, running rampant over the Vikings. He’d already had that memorable run against Kansas City where he pin-balled off of defenders, ran them over, high-stepped into the secondary, stutter-stepped and changed direction, stuck his helmet through the Chiefs hearts and generally wouldn’t go down.
He was already a player of lore halfway through his 13 seasons in the league when I first got my eyes on him. He was already Walter Payton, and the name itself carried import. Like fear. Or religion. Or Christmas.
I can still remember the mortals, too, that played on his field that day. Riley Odoms of the Broncos. Steve Watson and Rick Upchurch. Vince Evans, Matt Suhey. The Broncos held Payton in check for the most part on the ground. Yet, what did he do? Payton caught a 19-yard touchdown from Evans to give Chicago an early lead of 7-3. Later, when Upchurch — my favorite holy name, other than Haven Moses — gave Denver hope late in the third with a touchdown to make it a 28-17 lead for the Bears, he did it again. Payton caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to widen the gap. It was the dagger. Walter Payton personally kept the Broncos from the playoffs, like a righteous gatekeeper in a Roos headband.
I hated him that day. I admired him within a week of reflection. And later, I couldn’t get enough of him. I was mesmerized.
I would catch every Bears game I could on CBS from the following season on, because I wanted to see “Sweetness,” who was the kind of resilient, soft-spoken superstar that you silently want to associate with. He may get tackled, and he did — often — but there was already an air of the indomitable spirit to him. He just kept getting up. When a tackler would try to force him out of bounds, Walter said to hell with it — he put his head into that tackler’s sternum and trampled him for an extra yard. It was a defiance in his running style, a karmic need to dish out as much punishment as he took. There was something in his movement that went to the core of the man. The high steps and footwork. The stiff-arms. The matador’s ability to make people miss. His impossible center of gravity. The way he soared over the line of scrimmage at the goal line with symphonic grace.
To this day, watching Payton leap over the pile for a touchdown in slow motion is a thing of majestic beauty. How many times did we as kids try and emulate that version of Payton in our pick-up football games? A lot. Everybody wanted to sail over the pile. Everybody wanted to be Walter Payton.
I remember when he broke Brown’s record against the Saints, and thinking he was the greatest athlete that ever lived. The same year he helped the Bears win the Super Bowl — in 1985 — Sports Illustrated came out with a free gift for subscribers, a VHS tape called Crunch Course. In that video, which was full of merciless (perhaps illegal) hits set to dramatic 1980s synthesizers, Dick Butkus said he got a charge watching the movie Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte when the “head came rolling down the stairs.” He said he wanted to duplicate that on the football field. And Larry Csonka, the second coming of Bronko Nagurski, said he would “discombooberate” tacklers by turning into them. These were vintage football players.
But I subscribed to get the video because of Payton, the elegant interloper who didn’t have a bashed-in nose, or a psychotic streak like Lawrence Taylor. For such a sweet, almost delicate sounding man, he was just made of the toughest material. His wasn’t a cameo in Crunch Course. He was where the spotlight fell.
“I enjoy the contact of the game, that’s the way I was brought up,” he said. “It’s a hitting game, and my position calls for not being hit. When they hit you as hard as they can and you pop back and they go, ‘oh my god, I just tried to kill this guy and it didn’t hurt him. It’s going to be like this all day, I might as well just tackle him and get him down.’”
Payton was that player. He took your best hit, absorbed it, and then sprang back to his feet. On the next play, he might run you over — or leave you mired in the turf. He did this for over a dozen seasons, which is an extraordinarily long time for a running back to not only survive in the league, but to be as productive. When it was all said and done, he’d rewritten the record books on the genius of a simple idea: To never give up on a play. Nobody fought as hard on every snap than Payton, who ran, passed, blocked and — on occasion — even punted the ball. He could literally do it all.
In that same video, there’s a quote within a quote that wasn’t necessarily directed at Payton — or to the game he kept Denver from the playoffs in 1981, the way he stood out as a great player in an otherwise forgotten season. It was by Kansas City Chiefs coach Frank Gansz, who was relaying what it takes to fly down the field at high speeds and lay your body on the line in the NFL, play in and play out. It might as well have been about #34.
“I think there’s a lot of courage involved,” Gansz said. “I like to refer back to the men of the 101 and the 82nd Airborne. Somebody had asked them to define courage. And they said, ‘they’re the guys that are afraid…but they go anyway.”
I don’t know if Payton was afraid. He didn’t look afraid to me. But damn was he ever courageous.