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Moments of Heartbreak: Chicago Bears – The Death of Walter Payton

Who is Walter Payton?

Walter Payton was one of the top running back prospects in Mississippi coming out of high school but was not offered any scholarships by any teams in the SEC, as they offered very few African Americans scholarships during that time. He was offered a scholarship with Kansas State and had accepted but ultimately decided to stay in Mississippi and attend the primarily black Jackson State University. Payton had a very successful collegiate career, where he set school records in career touchdowns and touchdowns in a season. In 1973 and 1974, he was the winner of the Black College Player of the Year, as well as being named to the All-American Team in 1974. His college years would be where he earned the nickname “Sweetness” for his personality and demeanor, as well as his aggressive running style. In 1975, Walter Payton was selected 4th overall by the Chicago Bears, where he would begin his legendary career.

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NFL Career

Sweetness was and is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, running backs to ever play the game. In just his second season, he was selected to his 1st Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also named the Pro Bowl MVP that season. In just his third season, he exploded for more than 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns. It was also this season that he broke the record for rushing yards in a game with 275, previously held by OJ Simpson. That record-setting game was the football version of Michael Jordan’s “flu game” as Payton played this game with the flu and a 101 degree fever. That record stood for 23 years before being broken.

Though Payton was one of the best running backs in the NFL at the time, the Bears struggled and only managed to make the playoffs twice in Payton’s first 7 years. In 1982, the Bears brought in another soon to be legend to coach the team, Mike Ditka. In 1984, Payton would break Jim Brown’s career rushing yard record of 12,312 yards.  That season, Sweetness would rush for 1,500 yards and lead the Bears to the second best offense in the league. It was also this season the Bears would showcase one of the best defenses of all time, allowing a record setting low in points against.

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