For 13 seasons, Walter Payton was one of the most durable and productive players in NFL history. The Hall of Fame running back played in 186 straight games from 1975-87, and rushed for 1,200 or more yards in 10 of 11 seasons from 1976-86, missing only once in the 9-game strike shortened season of 1982.
These numbers are even more impressive when considering Payton’s hard, aggressive running style. The 5’10,” 200-pound Payton ran with the power of backs 40-50 pounds heavier, running through and over defenders before leaving them on the turf with his signature stiff arm.
Despite being one of the top high school running back prospects in his native Mississippi, Payton did not get any offers from Southeastern Conference schools. He instead opted for then Division 2 Jackson State University. He excelled for the Tigers, rushing for 3,563 yards and 63 touchdowns while twice being named Black College Player of the Year.
Pro scouts took notice, and the Chicago Bears made the Payton the fourth overall pick of the 1975 NFL Draft. The young prospect had a solid but unspectacular rookie year, as he rushed for 679 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games. His one missed game would be the only one of his 13-year career.
Payton established himself as one of the game’s elite backs in his second season, leading the NFC with 1,390 rushing yards and scoring 13 touchdowns in 1976. He earned his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for his efforts.
In 1977, Payton had one of the greatest seasons ever by a running back. He led the NFL with 1,852 yards rushing, 14 rushing touchdowns, 2,121 scrimmage yards, 16 total touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry in the 14-game season. He won NFL MVP, and was selected as an All-Pro and Pro Bowler for the second straight season. The Bears also made the playoffs for the first time since 1963. They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round, but Payton managed 150 all-purpose yards in the game.
The Bears missed the playoffs in 1978, but Payton led the NFC in rushing yards for the third straight year with 1,395, and the NFL in scrimmage yards for the second consecutive season with 1,875. He also improved his skills as a receiver, catching 50 passes for 480 yards.
Chicago was back in the postseason in 1979, led by their star running back, who led the NFC with 1,610 yards rushing and 16 total touchdowns. The Bears were once again one and done in the playoffs, but Payton had a strong showing with 119 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns.
Payton led the NFC in rushing for the fifth straight year in 1980 with 1,460 yards. It was also his fourth consecutive season with over 1,800 yards from scrimmage.
After five straight Pro Bowls, Payton was left off the team in 1981 and 82. He had his lowest yards per carry in 1981 at 3.6, and had under 1,000 yards for the first time in seven seasons in the 9-game strike year of 1982.
Payton set career highs in receptions (53) and receiving yards (607) in 1983, ran for 1,421 yards, and amassed 2,028 scrimmage yards. The Bears just missed out on a playoff spot, but their star running back was elected to his sixth Pro Bowl.
Chicago continued to improve as a team under third year Head Coach Mike Ditka, winning its first division title in 21 years in 1984. Payton had another stellar season with 1,684 rushing yards, 2,052 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns. In the Bears’ Divisional Playoff win, he ran for 104 yards and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass. Chicago was shut out by the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers 23-0 in the NFC Championship Game, but the All-Pro had a solid game with 92 yards rushing.
The year 1984 also marked a major milestone for Payton, as he broke Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s career rushing record of 12,312 yards in a game against the New Orleans Saints on October 7. The record would stand for 18 years.
The next season was a historic one for the Bears and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Chicago dominated its competition in 1985, finishing with a 15-1 record and an incredible point differential of +258. Payton ran for 1,551 yards, had over 2,000 scrimmage yards for the third consecutive year, and scored 11 touchdowns.
The NFL’s best defense had one of the greatest postseason performances ever, shutting out the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams by a combined score of 45-0 in the NFC playoffs before routing the AFC Champion New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl. The NFL’s rushing king could now add a Super Bowl ring to his Hall of Fame resume.
The Bears had another dominant regular season in 1986, finishing 14-2 while outscoring their opponents by 165 points. Chicago fell short of a second straight Super Bowl, though, after getting upset in the Divisional Round by the Washington Redskins. Payton had his last great season in 1986, as the 32-year-old had 1,333 yards rushing, 1,715 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns en route to his ninth career Pro Bowl selection.
Chicago won its fourth straight division title in 1987, Payton’s last season. The future Hall of Famer ran for only 533 yards in 12 games in the strike-marred season. The Bears once again lost to the Redskins in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but Payton finished on a high note with 105 scrimmage yards.
The 33-year-old Payton retired after the 1987 season, finishing his career as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards (16,726), rushing touchdowns (110), scrimmage yards (21,264) and games with 100+ rushing yards (77). He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1993.
Payton’s on field accomplishments during his 13-year career were legendary, but his contributions off the field continue to this day, over 20 years after his untimely death to cancer in 1999. His program that gives toys to underprivileged children at Christmas is kept alive by the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. The organization also raises awareness about organ donation, a cause Payton championed until his dying day. In addition, the Walter Payton Cancer Fund was established in 2002, along with programs benefiting veterans and schools.
The NFL’s Man of the Year award, which Payton won in 1977, was renamed in his honor in 1999. The award is given to the player who exemplifies excellence both on and off the field, a description that fits the life and legacy of Walter Payton perfectly.