| ||Saturday, November 6|
|CHICAGO -- The running back they called "Sweetness" wasn't the strongest or the fastest or the biggest.
What Walter Payton had was a huge heart, and it was big enough to make up for any qualities he lacked.
Payton, the NFL's leading career rusher, died Monday of bile duct cancer that was discovered earlier this year during treatment for a rare liver disease. He was 45.
Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his 13-year career, one of sport's most awesome records. Barry Sanders ensured it would be one of the most enduring, too, retiring in July despite being just 1,458 yards shy of breaking the mark.
"I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart," Payton once said.
Payton disclosed in February that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis and needed a liver transplant. His physician, Dr. Greg Gores of the Mayo Clinic, said Payton was subsequently diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct, a vessel that carries digestive fluids from the liver to the small intestine.
"The malignancy was very advanced and progressed very rapidly," Gores said. Because the cancer had spread so rapidly outside Payton's liver, a transplant "was no longer tenable," the doctor said.
Other doctors said transplants are never attempted when a patient has liver cancer.
"It's a big shock because he was the strongest man I met in my entire life," said Jim McMahon, Payton's teammate from 1982-87 and Chicago's quarterback of the 1985 Super Bowl champions.
Greatness wasn't preordained when Payton arrived in the NFL in 1975. A two-time Little All-American at Jackson State, he drew immediate comparisons to Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who had retired four years earlier.
But Payton steadfastly rejected the comparison, insisting, "I'm no Gale Sayers."
He wasn't. Whereas Sayers danced around defenders, Payton was more apt to run them over. His nickname, "Sweetness," was a tribute to his personality more than his running style. He took on tacklers with an aggressive, stiff-armed style that belied his size.
"He gave me a new respect for running backs," Singletary said. "He was the first running back I had ever seen who could've really been a great defensive player."
At just 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, Payton was smaller than typical power running backs. But he played much bigger.
He rushed for 679 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season, and the next year had the first of what would be 10 1,000-yard seasons, rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns.
In 1977, just his third year in the NFL, Payton won the first of two MVP awards with the most productive season of his career. He rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns, both career highs. His 5.5 yards per carry also was the best of his career.
Against Minnesota, he ran for 275 yards, an NFL single-game record that still stands. And in 1984, he broke Jim Brown's long-standing rushing record of 12,312 yards.
In tribute to Payton, Lambeau Field in Green Bay fell silent before Monday night's game between the Packers and Seattle Seahawks
"He was a guy of small stature but gigantic heart," said Eric Dickerson, third on the NFL's career rushing list behind Payton and Sanders. "He was an icon to all the guys who played that position. ... I loved to watch him play."
Even his teammates were amazed by him.
"The guy didn't want to lose, didn't want to be tackled, didn't want to miss a game," McMahon said. "To miss one game in his career was phenomenal. I couldn't figure out how he could do it week after week."
After carrying mediocre Chicago teams for most of his career, Payton saw the Bears finally make it to the Super Bowl in 1985. He rushed for 1,551 yards and nine touchdowns as the Bears went 15-1 in the regular season, and also caught 49 passes for 483 yards receiving and two TDs.
Chicago beat New England 46-10 in the Super Bowl, but Payton didn't score in the game.
Widely celebrated in Chicago, he was the city's highest-profile athlete in the years after Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks retired and before Bulls superstar Michael Jordan emerged.
"Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there," Jordan said. "He was a great man off the field, and his on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves. I spent a lot of time with Walter, and I truly feel that we have lost a great man."
Part of Payton's greatness was his selflessness off the field. As word of his death spread, sports radio talk shows in Chicago were flooded with stories of his kindness and generosity. One woman told of how Payton put her mother at ease at a charity dinner, asking to see photos of her family.
A well-known prankster, he set off firecrackers in the rookie locker room at the start of training camp. He occasionally would answer the phone at the Bears' reception desk.
The jokes continued even as he was dying. Last week, he purposely sent former Bears running back Matt Suhey to wrong addresses on a trip to Singletary's house, and then had him hide a hamburger and a malt in Singletary's garage.
"It was his duty to bring humor and light in any situation," Singletary said. "The Bears had had some tough years, and Walter was always the guy who, no matter how tough it was, would always make you feel great about playing the game and playing for the Bears.
"As a person, he was a bright spot for any darkness that appeared."
Which is why it was unfathomable to see Payton looking so gaunt and frail at the emotional news conference in February when he disclosed his liver disease.
"Am I scared? Hell yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be scared?" he asked. "But it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands."
He made few public appearances after that. Though he knew in recent weeks he was dying, he didn't talk about it. Instead, he spent as much time as he could with his family and close friends.
On Wednesday night, his son, Jarrett, who plays for the University of Miami, was called home.
"From the day in February when my dad told the world of his liver disease, the outpouring of love, support and prayers from around the world astounded even him," Jarrett Payton said, holding back tears as he read a statement at the Bears' headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill.
Born July 25, 1954, at Columbia, Miss., Payton played college football at Jackson State, where he set nine school records, scored 66 touchdowns and rushed for 3,563 yards. He once scored 46 points in one game.
He led the nation in scoring in 1973 with 160 points, and his 464 career points was an NCAA record. He finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1974, and was drafted fourth overall by the Bears.
He retired after the 1987 season, and the Bears immediately retired No. 34. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993, his first year of eligibility.
"After Brian Piccolo died, my husband and I promised ourselves we wouldn't be so personally involved with the players," said an emotional Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears' founder George Halas. "We were able to follow that resolve until Walter Payton came into our lives."
Besides his son, Payton is survived by his wife, Connie, and daughter Brittney.
Payton's life celebrated in service at Soldier Field
Not the prototype back, but maybe the smartest.
avi: 677 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1
Walter Payton's son Jarrett speaks at the Bears' news conference Monday.
RealVideo: | 28.8
Mike Ditka speaks with ESPN's Bob Ley about Payton's death.
RealVideo: | 28.8
Earl Campbell admired Payton as a great player and person.
wav: 145 k
RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6
Jim Brown breaks down Walter Payton.
wav: 135 k
RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6
ESPN's Tom Jackson looks back at playing against Payton.
wav: 199 k
RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6