Walter Payton. Picture Credit: Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Payton’s place as an icon

Sweet dreams are made of this


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

American Football is dedicated to excess: more drama, more hype, more impact. But one aspect of the sport is diminishing rather than increasing: the role of the running back (RB).

RB has long been one of the game’s marquee positions, the player who takes the ball in the backfield and has to find a way through the wall of defenders in front of him: “run to daylight” as legendary coach Vince Lombardi said. But running full tilt into half a dozen behemoths with GBH on their mind can be injurious to one’s health.

If he could gain another yard or two that’s what he did, no matter how much it hurt

The average RB has only three years as a pro, way less than other positions. RBs are gazelles on savannahs full of lions, and no prey runs forever. Even those who do recover from injury often find they’re not quite the same player as they were before, and in a game of fine margins “not quite” is “nowhere near”.

Add to this the fact that the passing game, where quarterbacks throw to men ahead of them, has become ever more accurate. Why run when you can throw? The ball travels faster and more freely than any man ever could.

There’s a vicious circle: a reduced role means lower pay, so promising college RBs start looking for other positions, so RBs get drafted later and later, which means lower pay, and on it goes. Only three RBs appear in the list of the 100 best-paid footballers, and none are higher than 75th.

But perhaps this is how all sports are, with strategy and tactics forever ebbing and flowing, and in a few years’ time the RB’s glory days will return. Little could be more welcome, for there are few sights in the sport to match an RB on the charge.

Like rugby’s broken-field runners, great RBs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are the jinking Jason Robinson-style ones such as the Detroit Lions’ Barry Sanders: compact, low to the ground, apparently capable of changing direction in mid-air. There are the graceful Jeremy Guscott types like O.J. Simpson, who before his infamy was one of the sleekest runners around, a Californian child who rewrote the record books in snowy Buffalo wastes. And there are the Jonah Lomu-likes such as Jim Brown, who in nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns never met a defender he couldn’t dominate.

Brown is by common consent the greatest of them all, but the most iconic — and the man who probably best combined those three attributes of elusiveness, grace and power — was Walter Payton.

They called him “Sweetness”. There was nothing sweet about Payton on the field. He wasn’t the biggest, the strongest or the quickest, but he played as though he was. He ran hard and undaunted, never shirking collisions, never afraid of the pain.

A lot of RBs will step out of bounds when they’re about to be hit, to preserve themselves for another day. Payton never did. If he could gain another yard or two that’s what he did, no matter how much it hurt. He titled his autobiography: Never Die Easy.

“Give me the heart of Walter Payton,” said Jim Brown. “There’s never been a greater heart”

Off the pitch, however, it was a different story. Payton had time for everyone, signing autographs for hours on end. At the Chicago Bears, where he spent his entire pro career, he knew the names not just of every member of staff but of their families too. He’d studied hard at college “to help dispel the myth that athletes in general and black athletes in particular don’t have to work to get their diplomas and that they don’t learn anything anyway”.

He rarely celebrated a touchdown himself, but instead handed the ball to one of his teammates in appreciation of all the work they did for him. The NFL’s annual player community service award is known as the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. He was always active, always engaged with people.

It came out later, however: it usually does. The quiet separation from his wife, the infidelities, the painkiller addictions, the depression, the suicidal thoughts: the last three in particular possible legacies of the toll which such a brutal sport takes on those who play it. Back in those days, no-one knew about long-term head injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy which are better understood now.

Many fans resented the halo of their idol being tarnished: they preferred to remember him as they’d seen him, or rather as they’d chosen to see him. But others liked the fact that Sweetness had become Bittersweet, that his flaws had made him more relatable rather than less. No man is perfect, no matter how much others might like to hold him up as such. Every man has his complexities, his nooks and crannies, his dark places. Every man fights them. Never die easy.

Payton was in every way a true great. In 13 years as a pro he rushed for 16,726 yards — then a record and still the second highest in history — and he missed only one game. “Give me the heart of Walter Payton,” said Jim Brown. “There’s never been a greater heart.”

But there was one thing that even Payton couldn’t beat: the bile duct cancer which shrunk him, yellowed him and finally killed him at the age of just 45 in 1999. Not all men really live, but all men die. Payton did not die easy.

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