On November 1, 1999 famed American football running back, Walter Payton died. Payton played for the Chicago Bears from 1975-1987, and is known for being one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. During his 13 season career, he held records for the league’s most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, and many other categories. He also appeared in nine Pro Bowls and was selected as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player twice.
Payton was born in Mississipi in 1954 and began to draw attention to himself after he was placed on the starting line-up at Jackson State University in 1971 when he was merely a freshman. He rushed more than 3,500 yards and scored over 450 points while he was in school at Jackson State. In addition to these versatile feats, he was named Black College Player of the Year twice. He garnered the nickname “Sweetness” while he was in college which many say came about due to his off-the-field personality. He showed a great interest in helping others, and studied education with an emphasis on helping the deaf. Some also say this nickname stemmed from his athletic grace, or as a sarcastic commentary on his aggressive playing style on the field.
In the 1975 NFL draft, Payton was picked up in the first round by the Chicago Bears. Payton’s playing motto was “Never Die Easy,” which was also the name of his posthumous autobiography. The motto came from Payton’s refusal to run out-of-bounds at practice and how he always delivered some sort of punishment to his tacklers before going down. He also invented a move he called the “stutter-step” which was a high-stepping, irregularly paced run he used to distract his opponents, especially those who were faster runners than him.
At the end of his football career in 1987, Payton held an NFL rushing record of 16,726 yards and a single game rushing record of 275 yards. In 1993, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he was put into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
After his retirement, he continued his humanitarian work and formed the Walter Payton Foundation to help youths in the state of Illinois. Payton announced in February of 1999 that he had been diagnosed with a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, which lead to him later getting bile duct cancer. He spent the last part of his life being an advocate for organ donation, though at this point, it was too late for him to receive any sort of transplant because his illness was at an advanced stage.
He died on November 1, 1999 at the age of 45 due to complications arising from his illness. After his death, organ donations skyrocketed in Illinois, and he is credited with bringing the need for organ donors to national attention. The famed football player’s legacy lives on in several foundations set up in his name which raise money for underprivileged children, cancer, and other various humanitarian causes.