On Nov. 1, 1999, the NFL lost one of its all-time greatest players, running back Walter Payton.
Known as “Sweetness,” Payton played for the Chicago Bears for 13 seasons and boasted an incredible list of career accomplishments: an All-American at Jackson State University, a nine-time Pro Bowl selectee, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a two-time MVP, the No. 5 NFL player of all time as ranked by NFL.com. During his career, he held the records for most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage, all-purpose yards, and more. And he helped lead the Bears to their one and only Super Bowl win in 1985.
Ironically, Super Bowl XX wasn’t one of Payton’s most distinguished games. He scored not a single point, blocked at every turn by the New England Patriots. But it wasn’t because he wasn’t great—quite the opposite, his star performance throughout the season and his career led the Patriots to concentrate their defense on Payton and Payton alone. His touchdown attempts were continually blocked, which was rough for Payton but worked out brilliantly for the rest of his team, who snuck past the Patriots to score 46 points to New England’s 10.
Payton wasn’t the classic football bruiser; in fact, he was comparatively small at 5-foot-10. But he was strong and, especially, fast. His speed and size helped him elude the competition—and always provided a fantastic show for the fans. Payton’s signature stutter-step confused anyone trying to stop him, and it was a joy to watch. And when he broke away from the other team’s defense, he flew down the field, rounding it out with characteristically modest touchdowns. No end-zone antics for Payton; he would hand the ball to a teammate or official and move on. He didn’t need to show off after scoring. His on-field acrobatics were show enough.
Walter Payton was just 45 when he died of bile duct cancer on Nov. 1, 1999. In the last months of his life, he became a strong advocate for organ donation. His illness progressed too fast for an organ transplant to help him, but his vocal support of donation networks had a huge impact on his fans—in the months after the announcement of his illness, organ donation in Chicago and across Illinois skyrocketed and even began to overwhelm donation banks. On the field and off, in sickness and in health, Sweetness was a star, loved fiercely by the city he made his home.