Late Payton served as example to all
Fox Sports ... Almost
When Walter Payton retired as the leading rusher in NFL history back in 1987, when I was still fresh off my eighth birthday, I just started crying.
My favorite player —the man I tried to be like when I was running around in those neighborhood backyards playing two-on-two football with my friends —was gone. Before I wanted to be like Mike, I wanted to be like Walter.
Monday, after a fight with bile duct cancer, Payton died at the young age of 45.
Because of my young age, my memories of my favorite player aren't many and the ones I do have aren't crystal-clear photographs imprinted in my mind forever.
I remember an NFL Films video I had with a segment on JOP (jumping over the pile), a form of a touchdown plunge that Walter pioneered for goal line situations. Here, instead of pounding hard, he took the ball from the quarterback and dove head first at what seemed to be about 10 feet above the pile of linemen and linebackers into the serenity of the waiting end zone.
I remember the Chicago Bears on the original Tecmo Bowl for Nintendo and how much you had to respect its running game because a computer representation of number 34 would make you pay if you didn't.
I remember asking my mom to save a Wheaties box with a painting of Walter on it that came out just a few years ago. I couldn't put my finger on his stats and didn't have replays of his great runs on repeat on the highlight reel of my mind.
I did know, however, he was a pretty special person, one whom I felt I had a special relationship with even if I had never met him or couldn't remember a lot about what he did.
The one specific instance I do remember is that last play he ever ran, fighting and struggling so hard not to go down that he ended up under the Redskins' bench as the final whistle blew.
My tears started to flow as I stood in the warmth of our laundry room on a cold winter day, asking my mom as she moved clothes from the washer to the dryer, why Walter wasn't going to play anymore.
After she responded, I went outside to play football. What else would I have dome? My face was still wet and my conscience guilty for going out to do something that was supposed to be fun on such a sad day. I was mourning the loss of my favorite football player.
Today, the world and especially his family mourn the loss of a great man.
At his press conference on Tuesday, Bob Davie told of how last December he made a recruiting visit to the Payton family to talk to Jarrett Payton, now a player for the University of Miami, about coming to Notre Dame.
Davie said Payton didn't want his son to be a running back because, "I don't think he wanted the comparisons made between Jarrett and Walter.
"Just to be in his home and see how much he cared about that son and that daughter was really impressive to me," Davie said.
Here was one of the greatest players in all of football history, someone with enough knowledge of the game to be coaching somewhere himself, and, in Davie's words, "[He] was just a dad. I was just impressed with the type of father he was."
When Walter retired, I was too young to really understand what a great person he was or how much he cared for people. I cried anyway.
Even now, I still don't know a whole lot about him as a person or even remember how he racked up those 16,726 yards rushing.
I can't fully comprehend the reason why my eyes lit up a couple of Christmases after he retired when I received a Walter Payton football under the tree or the reason I've saved the ball even though it got punctured in one of our neighborhood battles.
Even with scattered memories and a limited access to "Walter Payton, the man," I still feel I and all of us, no matter how unfamiliar we are with him, lost a great deal on Monday.
Special people have a way of conveying the magnitude of who they are, what they stand for, and they make others around them feel special by just being themselves.
Thank you, Walter, for giving all of us that very special gift.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, November 3, 1999