Hard to believe it's been 10 years.
In the mid-70s my beloved Bears were shitty. Very, very shitty.
I was 16 in 1975, and very caught up in the sport of football. I was a high school kicker when the Bears picked Walter Payton in the first round of the NFL draft. People think kickers aren't real players. Not real members of the team...until we miss a PAT. Then they get the bigger picture.
I was absolutely obsessed with football, and I followed everything about the Bears. Everything. No idea who this guy was when we picked him 4th in the 1st Round.
That was before the InterWeb TubeNets.
CBS Channel 2 ran some grainy video that night. Bruce Roberts screaming smack and comparisons to Gale Sayers.
Yeah right. But I watched.
Hey, this Payton guy's good.
But maybe he's just running around and over idiots. Maybe he just looks like Superman because his opponents all suck. Or maybe, he's that good. I'm a Bear fan, so I went with he's that good.
He was that good.
For the first 10 years of Walter Payton's career, he was essentially the only reason to watch the Bears games, and I watched every damned one of them.
I had never seen, nor have I seen since, a better football player than Walter Payton. The only other runner I'd put in Wally's class is Barry Sanders. Another guy who could break your ankles.
As a 5'10", 205lb rookie, Walter still had the speed of youth. He could get to the corner. And, because he was Walter, he'd turn that corner, and cut north looking for somebody to run over.
Run out of bounds? Walter Payton? Uh, no not so much.
He'd gain a first down, stiff-arm you into a neck brace, insult your dog, and then help you up off the ground.
For a decade, Walter was the face of this somewhat oldish football franchise while they languished.
The Bears sucked out loud, and yet they'd sell out. People wanted to watch Walter run. He'd gain 100 yards, and people would be happy. Loss? Who gives a shit, did you see that over-the-top springboard thing Walter did?
Walter was also the Bears backup punter, kicker (Yeah baby!!!), and 3rd string QB.
I think one year Walter threw (as a running back) 3 touchdown passes, or maybe it was 10.
They tell me he punted a ball 80 yards up at Lake Forest one day.
But he was always on shitty teams.
And then it happened.
10 years into Walter's career, the Bears defense had one of those weird time-space things where suddenly everyone is a beast.
The line, was Hampton, Fridge, McMichael, and Hartenstein.
The LBs, were Otis Wilson, Mike Singletary, and Wilbur Marshall.
No need to name the D-backs, because nobody ever got through the first two gears of the meat-grinder. (Fencik, Frazier, Richardson, and I forget...Terry Schmitt?)
Heck, even a sucky QB like Jim McMahon had a decent year.
Anyway, finally Walter Payton got to play in a Super Bowl. The 1985 Bears were a force of nature. Best I ever saw. Walter had slowed a step, but he'd given this city so much joy by then, that everyone saw the 46-10 trouncing of the Patriots as the culmination of a career for Walter Payton.
There was some grumbling afterward about Ditka letting Fridge score a TD, and Walter being left with his dick in his hand, but you rarely heard Wally even talk about it. When asked, he'd dodge the question and then stiff-arm the reporter in the mouth before gaining a first down.
In his astonishing NFL career Walter Payton:
Ran for 16,726 yards.
Rushed for 110 touchdowns.
Caught 15 touchdown passes.
Threw for 8 touchdowns.
And, when combining kickoff/punt returns, rushes. passes and catches....accounted for just under 22,000 yards of Bears offense.
On mostly shitty teams.
Twenty two thousand yards. About 13 miles.
Back in the day, for awhile I drove a limo.
It was after Wally had retired.
I was parked in front of the Oak Brook Hills Hotel, when who came walking out the front revolving door but Walter Payton. As he approached me on the sidewalk, I quickly pulled out my airport numbers and jammed a 3 and a 4 in front of my usual number 80.
Now I was American 34.
He saw what I'd done, I made a big production out of it, and he just pointed at me as I saluted him from the driver's seat.
Walter was the shit.
And then it happened.
Walter Payton got sick.
At first he'd kept his illness quiet, but word got out.
We all knew.
10 years ago today, Walter Payton lost his battle with a rare autoimmune liver disease. Even though we knew, it shocked the shit out of this town. People cried when they heard the news. We'd lost family.
While Walter was never a candidate, his wife Connie and their kids have stayed front and center in raising awareness of organ donation, with the help of our Secretary of State Jesse White.
Hey folks, consider organ donation, okay?
Save a life on your way out of the party.