/Hard to believe Walter Payton is gone after 20 years

Hard to believe Walter Payton is gone after 20 years

Walter Jerry Payton was born in Columbia on July 25, 1954. He was the greatest football player I have ever seen. Period. He could run, catch, kick, punt, throw, and even run it. He was also the most efficient blocking running back that I saw. He was able to knock 285-pound defensive end backwards. He was a great runner. He was able to run in between tackles as well as wide. He would have been the greatest strong safety if he hadn’t been such a valuable offensive player. He was built for physical contact. It hurt you more than it hurt him when you confronted him. D.D. Lewis once asked me who was the most difficult man he had ever faced. D.D. didn’t hesitate. “Walter Payton,” D.D. answered. It was almost like trying to tackle a 215-pound bowling balls. It hurt. It hurt. He was 21 months younger than me and I was working as a teenager sportswriter at the Hattiesburg American. When he started playing football for Columbia Wildcats, I was around 21 months old. Columbia was far from our area of circulation, but we had a stringer who reported on Columbia games every Friday night. Eva B was her name. Beets. Her drawl was so rich, Southern, and slow that she could turn football into a four-syllable term. Every Friday, she would say, “Rickey,” and you wouldn’t believe what the Payton boy did tonight. Beets said to me that Richard scored six touchdowns, and that on the last one, he ran the 30 yard backwards. That’s why Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Southern Miss didn’t offer him a scholarship. This was just as integration was taking place. Mississippi schools were looking for “the right kind” of black players. They wanted players who would not run the final 30 yards backwards but would pass the ball to an official after scoring a touchdown. I thought, “You can teach a child to pass the ball to the referee.” Walter was unable to be taught to run for six touchdowns.” He went on to Jackson State, where he scored 63 touchdowns and kicked 53 more points. Yes, coaches did teach him to pass the ball to officials after he scored.
Walter became the agent of Bud Holmes, Hattiesburg attorney and a friend. That’s when I met Payton and his family. I was especially able to get to know his beautiful mother, Alyne Payton. She is one of the most sweetest women I have ever met. Mrs. Payton and me flew together in Holmes’ Learjet to one Walter’s Chicago Bears games. I was slightly scared, but she was even more so. As we landed at Lakefront, we almost slid into Lake Michigan’s icy landing strip. We held hands. She was strong and steady. He made us proud, Walter did. His teammates loved and admired him. Fans loved him. Even the officials loved him. His high-pitched voice, manners and mischievousness earned him the nickname “Sweetness”. Jack Vaughn, a Starkville-based NFL official, once told me of the time he tried to reach the bottom of a pile to find the football. Walter reached out from the pile and untied Vaughn’s shoes laces, tying them together left to right. “I nearly tripped. Vaughn stated that Walter laughed and laughed. It is often forgotten that even though Payton played for the Bears in his final season, he worked for many poor teams for the majority of his career. Opponents knew for a long time that they had to stop Payton in order to stop the Bears. They couldn’t. He was the NFL’s most prolific rusher and broke the record of Jim Brown. I was there to cover his inductions into South Bend’s College Football Hall of Fame and Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in his later years. His surprising death at 45 was made more difficult by his continued health and fitness, even after retirement. His workouts were legendary. Archie Manning tried working out with him once in Jackson. Manning said that he made it in about 10 minutes, but then he couldn’t continue. Walter was more chiseled than he was. He was a muscle-strengthening athlete. He could run for hours. I suppose I assumed that he would live forever. It was because of this that the news of his passing 20 years ago was so shocking. Yes, I knew he was ill. He had also lost a lot of weight. He was suffering from primary sclerosing Cholangitis, according to his family. Although I didn’t understand what it was, I believed Payton would beat it. Then he failed to beat it. This disease eventually led to cholangiocarcinoma. It is a hard way to describe bile duct carcinoma. This is what caused the death of the greatest football player I saw 20 years ago.