Walter Payton, a star in the National Football League (NFL) and first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, is considered one of the greatest football players of all time. His career began in Columbia, Mississippi, where the youngest child of Peter and Alyne Payton was the star running back at John J. Jefferson High School.
Born on 25 July 1954, Walter Jerry Payton did not play organized football until 1968, his sophomore year of high school; he preferred to play drums in the marching band. After the school’s lead running back—Walter’s brother, Eddie—graduated, Payton joined the football team; on his first play, he ran 65 yards for a touchdown. When Jefferson High School was integrated with Columbia High School in January 1970, Payton continued to dominate. He led the Little Dixie Conference in scoring during his senior year and was named to the all-state team.
Payton followed his brother to Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in 1971. A four-year starter, he gained 3,563 career yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. While there, he earned the nickname Sweetness, a fitting acknowledgment of both his talents on the field and his charisma off it. Payton was named to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II-AA all-American team in 1974 and finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in special education in three and a half years and set nine school records as well as collegiate-level records for career points (464) and points in a single game (46).
The Chicago Bears selected Payton with the fourth overall pick in the 1975 NFL draft. He spent thirteen years with the team and missed only a single game. Payton rushed for 1,390 yards during the 1976 season, the second-highest total in the league. The following year, at age twenty-three, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, the youngest player to earn that distinction. On 20 November 1977 he gained 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings to set an NFL single-game rushing record that stood for twenty-three years and that remains one of the highest totals in league history.
Payton was named to the Pro Bowl nine times. When he retired at the end of the 1987 season, he owned the league records for career rushing yards (16,726), rushing attempts (3,838), career combined yards (21,803), rushing touchdowns (110), 1,000-yard seasons (10), and 100-yard games (77). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
In 1979 Payton founded Walter Payton Enterprises, a company that went on to own various businesses, including a restaurant, a contractor supply company, and an auto racing team. He and his wife, Connie, also founded the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation and worked tirelessly and often anonymously to better the conditions of underprivileged children in Illinois.
Payton died on 1 November 1999 of complications from cancer. In his honor, the National Football League now recognizes a player’s outstanding service to the community with the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
- Nathan Aaseng, Football’s Breakaway Backs (1980)
- Donald Hunt, Great Names in Black College Sports (1996)
- Philip Koslow, Walter Payton (1995)
- Randall Liu and Matt Marini, eds., Official 2004 National Football League Record and Fact Book (2004)
- Connie Payton, Jarrett Payton, and Brittney Payton, Payton (2005)
- Walter Payton with Don Yaeger, Never Die Easy (2000)
- Jeff Pearlman, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton (2011)
- Mark Sufrin, Payton (1988)
- Mike Towle, I Remember Walter Payton (2000)