The Legacy that Walter Payton left the pro game was in full view last February when the New Orleans Saints were interviewing college prospects in a meeting room at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The Saints were enamored of Texas running back Ricky Williams; now they were trying to determine just how much they loved him. New Orleans coach Mike Ditka, who had coached Payton for six years with the Chicago Bears, was praying that he'd have a twice-in-a-lifetime chance to get a rusher with the perfect package of power, speed and attitude. So when the Saints' staff interviewed Williams, Ditka asked him what running backs he liked growing up.
" Walter Payton," said Williams. "Great ability. Great work ethic. Played through pain. Didn't run out-of-bounds. Won."
That was music to Ditka, who traded eight draft picks to the Washington Redskins so that he could take Williams with the fifth selection. An hour after hearing of Payton's death on Monday, Ditka's voice quavered. "I think that Walter was the greatest player who ever lived," he said. "He was a power back, a speed back, a blocking back. People ask me about the play he was involved in that I remember most, and it's probably a block he threw. There's no question he was one of the best blocking backs ever."
"That's how unselfish he was," says former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who played with Payton for six seasons. "How many times did he save my butt picking up a blitz before I was blown up? A lot. Never once did he say in the huddle, 'Hey, give me the ball!' Whatever we called, he ran. Football has had very few like him."
It's interesting that when remembering Payton, Ditka and McMahon talked about his blocking, not the fact that he was the leading rusher in NFL history. Meanwhile, opponents recalled Payton's extraordinary running. "In their Super Bowl year , we played them at Lambeau," says former Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Noble. "It was my rookie season, and we were having a great game, up 10-9 late in the fourth quarter. They had the ball at about our 30.1 weighed 265 pounds, and Walter came right at me with the ball. I teed up, and there was a huge collision. I hit that man as hard as I hit anybody in my career. I knocked him back about four yards, but he stayed up and just kept going. Touchdown. I was devastated; I cost us the game. Sitting in the locker room afterward, I was ready to quit. But my teammate John Anderson put his arm around me and said, 'Believe me, that's not the first time and it won't be the last time that Walter Payton breaks a tackle like that.' "
Noble sighed. "I had some collisions in my day with great backs, big backs—William Perry, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson. Without question Walter was the greatest player I played against. Or saw."
Said Ditka, "He was a coach's dream. I just stayed away from him and tried not to screw him up."