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Fury on the Field
Paul Zimmerman
November 08, 1999
Few NFL players have possessed the fire that burned inside Walter Payton
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November 08, 1999

Fury On The Field

Few NFL players have possessed the fire that burned inside Walter Payton

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How could this have happened to Walter Payton? Waiting nine months for a transplant that could have saved his life. Slowly sinking, gradually slipping away. Life was the thing that defined him, great, passionate bursts of life.

He played football in a frenzy, attacking tacklers with a fury that almost seemed personal. He got stronger as the game went on. Defenses tired, he attacked them. In 1982, near the height of a remarkable career in which he rushed for more yards (16,726) than any man in history, I interviewed him at the Chicago Bears' training camp in Lake Forest, III. We were sitting in the lobby of the players' dorm. He had brought his motorcycle in and leaned it against a wall. Twilight was approaching but the lights in the lobby hadn't been turned on yet, and as we talked, he kept bouncing to his feet to emphasize some point—he couldn't sit still. His eyes sparkled in that half light, and I got this weird, unearthly feeling that there was a glow around him, that he was giving off sparks, that there was some kind of fire burning inside, lighting him up. It was the fire of pure energy. I'd never seen this before.

He told me about his off-season workouts, how he'd run up and down the steep levees near his home in Mississippi, how he'd burn out anyone foolish enough to try to keep up with him. He played in 186 straight games to finish his 13-year NFL career. All of them played at a furious pace.

"A little bundle of dynamite," Dallas Cowboys safety Cliff Harris once called him. This was after the 1977 Bears-Cowboys playoff game, and Harris, one of the more vicious hitters in NFL history, described a knockout shot he had aimed at Payton. "As he caught a pass and turned up-field, I caught him just right, one of the hardest hits I ever delivered," Harris said. "He just bounced up and patted me on the behind and ran back to the huddle. I'd heard that you could never keep him on the ground. Now I know for sure."

Now, at 45, he's gone. It's hard to imagine.