Remembering Walter Payton: football player and humanitarian

By Ella Schaffer, Contributor

Walter Payton memorabilia honors the school’s namesake.

Walter Payton was known as one of the best professional football players in the United States. In his personal life, he was said to be very kind and generous to those around him, earning him the nickname “Sweetness.” November 1, 2021 marks the 22nd anniversary of Walter Payton’s death. Walter Payton died at the age of 45 from cancer, a side effect of his rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis.  

Payton was born on July 25, 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi. Picking up football as a junior in high school, he showed great skill in the game. He started college in 1971 at Jackson State University where he joined the starting lineup his freshman year as a halfback. Along with graduating with a degree in special education, he set a National Collegiate Athletic Association record for most points scored (scoring more than 450 points) and was selected for the All-American team. He was named the Black College Player of the Year in 1973 and 1974.

“I want to be remembered as the guy who gave his all whenever he was on the field,” Payton once said. After college, Payton started playing for the Chicago Bears in 1975 and was named MVP two years later in 1977. In total, he played with the team for 13 years; it was the only team he played for outside of college. While playing for the Bears, he set several records and made 125 touchdowns. He was known for his extraordinary speed and power. Along with earning nine Pro Bowl selections in his career, in 1986, he earned a Super Bowl Ring after the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots. 

A second-floor mural depicts Walter Payton, number 34, as well as numbers 35 and 69, which have been worn by multiple Bears players.

Payton retired in 1987 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame soon after in 1993, followed by the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. During retirement, Payton remained very busy working with several charities, including the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation which focused on helping children and veterans. “Children have always brought a tremendous amount of joy to me and I feel that if you can catch them at a young age you can really change a life,” Payton once said. He grew up with two siblings and had two children of his own. Payton also ventured into various businesses. He owned various nightclubs in Chicago during the late 1980’s and 1990’s, including Studebaker’s, Thirty-Four’s and America’s Bar. He also loved to race cars and he eventually bought into the Dale Coyne CART racing team. In 1988, Payton joined the board of directors of the Chicago Bears, a rare thing for an ex-player to do. 

When Walter Payton died, he had a public funeral at Soldier Field. He is still remembered and loved by Chicagoans. His legacy lives on through Walter Payton College Preparatory Highschool, which was opened in 2000 to commemorate Payton’s football career and charity work in helping Chicago children. In 2016, the building was expanded under a project overseen by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Payton students are known to follow Walter Payton’s motto,  “Work hard or don’t work at all.” The school commemorates Walter Payton’s legacy through various art depicting his football career and hosting its annual “Sweetness Day” which allows students to give back to their neighborhoods. 

Walter Payton and his achievements are commemorated around the school building.

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