Considered one of the NFL's greatest players and his death, one of football's greatest losses, Walter Payton has left a lasting impression on the world. Now as the five-year anniversary of his death approaches, Fox Sports Net's critically-acclaimed documentary series commemorates his life from his humble Mississippi roots to his record-breaking days as a Chicago Bear to the legacy he left after his death. This heartwarming episode of BEYOND THE GLORY: WALTER PAYTON airs on Sun., May 16 at 8:00 PM local.
Payton was raised in Columbia, Mississippi, and had little interest in football as a youngster. It wasn't until after his older brother had gone off to college that Walter decided to pursue football. After earning All-State honors in high school, Payton chose to stay close to home, attending Jackson State University in Mississippi. It was there that he met his wife to be, Connie. In his four years as a Tiger, Payton rushed for more than 3,500 yards and put his name atop the NCAA record books. But for Payton, his hunger for success was still strong. He wanted more.
That year, Payton was drafted by the Chicago Bears as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 draft. During his 13-year career with the Bears, Payton played in nine Pro Bowls, held the single game rushing record of 275 yards, scored 100 touchdowns and rushed for over 16,000 yards, breaking Jim Brown's long standing career rushing record. He was named the NFL Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player in both 1977 and 1985, and played on a Super Bowl championship team in 1985. He retired in 1987 as the NFL's all-time rushing leader. Nicknamed "Sweetness" for his charming personality, Payton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and his #34 was retired by the Bears.
After retiring, Payton devoted much of his time to his wife and two children, son Jarrett and daughter Brittany. At the age of 44, Payton's family began to notice physical changes in him. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a rare disease of the liver, and although he planned to get a liver transplant, Payton's situation got worse when doctors discovered he also had cancer of the liver. There was nothing anyone could do. Payton passed away in 1999 at the age of 45.
After his death, the Payton family was overwhelmed by the massive outpouring of letters sent to them by fans whose lives Payton had touched and who also felt the pain of his passing. But Payton's legacy lives on in the hearts of those who loved him. His son, Jarrett, a member of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes national championship team, is following in his father's footsteps. He recently signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans. The Payton legacy continues with the Walter Payton Cancer Fund, which seeks to find a cure for cancer.
Those interviewed include: son Jarrett Payton, daughter Brittney Payton, wife Connie Payton, brother Eddie Payton, mother Alyne Payton, high school football coach Charles Boston, high school teammate Forest Dantin, Bears coach Mike Ditka, former Bears RB Gale Sayers, Bears teammates Mike Singletary, Roland Harper and Richard Dent, agent Paul "Bud" Holmes.
More excerpts from the documentary:
Connie Payton – "It's nice to have people come up and to share those stories and keep his memory going. It's been good for me too as far as just really getting thru it and the healing process."
On the 1985 Bears Super Bowl victory – "You just knew that they were unbeatable, that they were unstoppable. There was something so magnetic about these guys, you just felt it."
Jarrett Payton on what he learned from his father – "Never die easy, for anything, no matter what it is."
On how his father touched the lives of his fans – "I was downtown in the city one night and this man about 25 came up to me and had tears in his eyes, took off his shirt and he had a big "34" tattooed on his back, Bears colors. And he looked at me and just said 'thank you' and walked away. You lose sight sometimes when they're gone how they affected people's lives."
On what's next for him – "Whatever happens next, I'm not going to worry about it. I know we're going to be alright. My Dad made sure of that."
Brittany Payton – "The amount of letters that came in and the amount of cards that was sent?it was nice to go back and read them and laugh at some of them and cry at some of them and realize that as much pain as I was going through, there's other people out there that are hurting just as much."
Eddie Payton – "It was a tough hand to be dealt, but he made the best of it. It may have been tougher for my mother than for anybody else, because that's her baby."
On his fans in Chicago – "People in Chicago recognized how genuine he was, and they adopted him. People in Chicago now think he's from Chicago and not Mississippi."
Mike Singletary – "Walter was sort of like the father of a house. When a father leaves the home, there's something that goes with him that no one can replace."
Gale Sayers – "When Walter played, it was his time."
Mike Ditka – "I only remember the person. The person is going to live a lot longer than the records. There will never be a star like #34."