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Walter Payton dead at 45

NFL's all-time rusher suffered from rare liver disease

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Posted: Tuesday November 02, 1999 05:08 PM

  Walter Payton Walter Payton was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1993. AP

CHICAGO (AP) -- Walter Payton, the NFL's greatest rusher whose aggressive style masked a playful temperament that earned him the nickname "Sweetness," died Monday at age 45.

Payton died of bile duct cancer that was discovered during his treatment earlier this year for primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease.

Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his 13-year career, one of sport's most awesome records. And Barry Sanders ensured it would be one of the most enduring, retiring in July despite being just 1,458 yards shy of breaking Payton's mark.

"I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart," Payton once said.

Payton was coached for six years by Mike Ditka, now coach of the New Orleans Saints, who called him "the best football player I've ever seen."

"And he led by example on the field. He was the complete player. He did everything. ... He was the greatest runner, but he was also probably the best blocking back you ever saw."

Statement by Jarrett Payton

These last 12 months have been extremely tough on me and my family. But through these difficult times, we've learned a lot about love and life.

My family and I would like to say thanks to the many, many people who have made life easier for us. From the days in February when my dad told the world about his liver disease, the outpouring of love and support and prayers from around the world astounded even him.

We want to make a special point to thank the many doctors and nurses and staff at the Mayo Clinic and the Midwest Treatment Center for the care they offered my dad and the hand holding they offered us -- me and my family.

We also want to thank the management at the Chicago Bears for their support, which for 25 years made him feel very special. They looked out for my dad and our family and we will never forget it.

Thanks to the Bears teammates that have called and came over regularly to boost his spirits.

They said it was tough to understand the family relationship that exists between teammates; I understand that more today.

Finally, our greatest thanks goes out to the people of Chicago. You adopted my dad and made him yours. He loved you all. You have made this his home. We are proud to be among you.

Thank you.


Payton disclosed in February that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis and needed a liver transplant.

His physician, Dr. Greg Gores of the Mayo Clinic, said Payton was subsequently diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct, a vessel that carries digestive fluids from the liver to the small intestine.

"The malignancy was very advanced and progressed very rapidly," Gores said at a news conference. Because the cancer had spread so rapidly outside his liver, a transplant "was no longer tenable," the doctor said.

Gores declined to say when the cancer was diagnosed.

"Walter was the kind of individual who refused to think, 'Why me, why now?' He just continued to look forward," said Mike Singletary, his teammate from 1981-87 and a close friend.

Even in his final days, Payton never talked about dying, Singletary said.

"He had dealt with that, but he didn't want to talk about that," he said.

Payton was widely celebrated in Chicago, the city's highest-profile athlete in the years after Cubs' Hall of Famer Ernie Banks retired and before Bulls' superstar Michael Jordan emerged.

"Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there," Jordan said in a statement issued after Payton's death. "He was a great man off the field, and his on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves. I spent a lot of time with Walter, and I truly feel that we have lost a great man."

A two-time Little All-American, Payton finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1974 and was picked fourth overall by the Bears in the 1975 NFL draft. He rushed for 679 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season and the next year had the first of what would be 10 1,000-yard seasons, rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Walter Payton Walter Payton was in good spirits at an April appearance at Wrigley Field. Matthew Stockman/Allsport  

In 1977, just his third year in the NFL, Payton won the first of two MVP awards with the most productive season of his career. He rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns, both career highs. His 5.5 yards per carry also was the best of his career.

Against Minnesota, he ran for 275 yards, an NFL single-game record that still stands. And in 1984, he broke Jim Brown's longstanding rushing record of 12,312 yards.

After carrying mediocre Chicago teams for most of his career, Payton saw the Bears finally make it to the Super Bowl in 1985. Payton rushed for 1,551 yards and nine touchdowns as the Bears went 15-1 in the regular season, and also caught 49 passes for 483 yards receiving and two TDs.

Chicago beat New England 46-10 in the Super Bowl, but Payton didn't score in the game.

When he disclosed his liver disease at an emotional news conference in February, the Hall of Famer looked gaunt and frail, a shadow of the man who gained more yards than any running back in the history of the NFL.

"Am I scared? Hell yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be scared?" he asked. "But it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands."

Payton made few public appearances after that and his son, Jarrett, who plays for the University of Miami, was called home Wednesday night.

"From the day in February when my dad told the world of his liver disease, the outpouring of love, support and prayers from around the world astounded even him," Jarrett Payton said, holding back tears as he read a statement at the Bears' headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill.

Born July 25, 1954, at Columbia, Miss., Payton played college football at Jackson State, where he set nine school records, scored 66 touchdowns and rushed for 3,563 yards. He once scored 46 points in one game.

He led the nation in scoring in 1973 with 160 points, and his 464 career points was an NCAA record.

Payton was somewhat undersized for a power running back, something Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green remembered Monday.

"He set a standard for going all out," Green said. "He wasn't as big as some of your other backs that play the game, but he could outwork anybody and he always gave 100 percent. And that was 100 percent to his family, to his friends, to the game of football, and so is a guy that is really going to be missed."

Payton's nickname of "Sweetness" was a tribute to his personality more than his running style. He was an elusive runner but often took on tacklers with an aggressive, stiff-armed style that belied his size.

"As a person, he was a bright spot for any darkness that appeared," Singletary said.

Even as he was dying, Payton continued to play pranks on his friends. Last week, he purposely sent former Bears running back Matt Suhey to wrong addresses on a trip to Singletary's house, and then had him hide a hamburger and a malt in Singletary's garage.

Payton retired after the 1987 season, and the Bears immediately retired No. 34.

Payton was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993, his first year of eligibility.

"This is a great loss. Walter Payton was an inspiration to me by the way he carried himself on the field and off the field," said Dallas' Emmitt Smith, who with 13,174 yards is the NFL's active rushing leader and No. 4 on the list, 3,552 behind Payton.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called Payton "one of the greatest players in the history of the sport."

  Walter Payton Payton remains the NFL's career rushing leader with 16,726 yards over 13 seasons, all with the Bears. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

"Walter was an inspiration in everything he did. The tremendous grace and dignity he displayed in his final months reminded us again why 'Sweetness' was the perfect nickname for Walter Payton," Tagliabue said.

Following retirement, Payton tried his hand at auto racing and became co-owner of a CART team.

Payton also served on the Bears' board of directors and became part-owner of an Arena Football League team after unsuccessful efforts to buy an NFL franchise. He also ran a restaurant and other businesses in the Chicago area.

At the Hall of Fame ceremony, he chose his son, who was then 12 years old, to present him for induction.

"Not only is he a great athlete, he's a role model -- he's my role model," Jarrett said.

Besides his son, Payton is survived by his wife, Connie, and daughter, Brittney.

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