Essay title: Walter Payton
In 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1987, Payton literally rewrote the NFL record book with his ball-carrying feats. He rushed 3,838 times for 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns-all records. He also caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 more touchdowns. Altogether, he scored 125 touchdowns, second most ever, and he accounted for a record 21,803 combined net yards.
Payton rushed for an all time high 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on November 20,1977. He rushed for more than 100 yards a stunning 77 times. He won the NFL kickoff return championship as a rookie. He even completed 11 out of 34 passes for 331 yards and eight touchdowns.
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No other running back has even remotely threatened Payton's overall production. Ironically, Payton's exceptional rushing statistics tend to obscure the fact that he was an exceptional all-round football player, arguably the best who ever lived. He was blessed with a wide variety of athletic skills and he put them all to good use during his NFL career. "He is a complete football player," Jim Finks, the former Chicago Bears general manager who drafted Payton, said.
"He is better than Jim Brown. He is better than O.J.
Simpson." Payton prided himself on his blocking ability. When he talks about career highlights, one of his fondest memories drifts back to 1985 when he intercepted a blitzing Minnesota linebacker to make it possible for Jim McMahon to throw a crucial touchdown pass. "Walter takes pride in the little things, the blocking, the faking.
Once against Cincinnati, he picked up a couple of linebackers and liked to have killed them," Payton's last Bears coach, Mike Ditka, remembers. His teammate, Brian Baschnagel, insisted that Payton could play any position. Then he hesitated: "I guess at 5-10, 202 pounds, his size might limit him at defensive tackle. The most incredible thing I ever saw was the time he threw me a 50-yard touchdown pass. He was literally going down and he had to whip the ball that far sidearm.
" Payton played football with the enthusiasm of a 10th grader trying to be the best tailback on the team," teammate Dan Hampton once said. He trained tirelessly by weightlifting and jogging during every off-season and always appeared at training camp in perfect physical condition. He missed only one game in his rookie 1975 campaign in his first 12 seasons. " I could have played but my coach, Jack Pardee, wouldn't let me. I don't count that as a miss," Payton insisted. Payton never tried to avoid contact. In fact, he relished it. His only possible flaw was his reluctance to run out of bounds.
He would rather punish a tackler than let the tackler punish him. More than one opponent accused him of going out of his way to run over them and Payton readily admitted that was so. "See, the thing about defensive players is that they want to hit you as hard as they can. They're obsessed with that," he said. "My coach at Jackson State, Bob Hill, always said that if you are going to die, you should die hard, never die easily." Undoubtedly Payton suffered all of the bumps and bruises that all-pro players experience, but he never let it bother him.
When he had arthoscopic surgery on both knees after the 1983 season, Payton referred to it merely as "my 11,000-yard checkup." Payton's running style was unusual in that his knees rarely bent when he ran. Most running backs flexed their knees twice as much. Payton's leg swing came from the hips instead, thus giving him more power and extra leverage and shifting the burden of running to the upper leg and off the knees, the most valuable joints. His relatively straight-legged motion made it easier for Payton to run on his toes, for the ordinary player a nearly impossible task. Payton could do it because he was inordinately strong in his thighs, hamstrings and buttocks. Payton thus was a more power runner than the breakaway speedster that is more common among high-yardage ball-carriers.
Payton's teammates may remember him as much for his practice antics as for his on-the-field success. If he wasn't.