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Remembering a Sport's Hero's LIfe Lessons

Written by W. Blake Gray

Life advice from a sports hero. It's all in the way he played the game of life.walter payton's sweetness in real life

Walter Payton's nickname was a joke. The leader of the Chicago Bears enjoyed leveling larger linebackers and slamming into would-be tacklers, yet some wag called him "Sweetness" and it stuck.
 
After he died, reminiscences came in from the Chicago media about Payton: his ferocity, his manic energy, his wicked sense of humor, his heart. All our memories of him are sweet. These are just a few reasons why we'll remember him as a great inspiration, not just a great football player.
 
More energy than a punk band mainlining Sugar Smacks. During practice, when his unit wasn't needed, he would sometimes walk up the sidelines on his hands. Early in summer drills when high temperatures made tempers short, Payton would keep things loose by grabbing a defensive back, in the middle of a play, and engage in a dance routine.
 
Knew the value of a smile. On the last day of the 1979 season, with the Bears fighting an uphill battle to the playoffs, team president George Halas died. The mood on the field was morose until Payton, at the bottom of a pileup, reached out and untied an official's shoelaces. Five plays later he tried to do it again. We bet even Halas smiled.
 
Love of the fans. On Wednesday mornings, between strategy conferences, Payton would relieve Louise, the switchboard operator at Halas Hall. He loved anonymously taking fans' calls and solving problems; if you ever called on a Wednesday to complain about Mike Ditka grabbing his crotch on TV, odds are good you brought a smile to Payton's face as he transferred you to public relations.
 
The only circumstance, let alone person, to stop a football game. In 1984, when Payton broke Jim Brown's record for the most rushing yards ever, the game against New Orleans was stopped for three minutes. President Reagan, who was supposed to be busy campaigning, called from Air Force One to send his regards; Payton said to give his regards to Nancy, who then insisted on speaking with him, too. We don't know if she called the next play.
 
He had a need for speed. When Walter Payton asked if you wanted a ride, you had to check your insurance policy. Speeding tickets by athletes are usually just something you wag your finger at, but Payton once got a Hall of Fame-level citation for going 94 mph in a 35 mph zone in Lake Forest, Ill. No wonder he went into racecar driving when he quit football.
 
Considered friendship a contact sport. "It was not possible for him to simply stand there and engage in conversation with someone he knew," said Bill McGrane, director of operations for the Bears. "He had to touch you. To visit with Walter was to have your ribs counted, your paunch patted, your necktie straightened, your pockets emptied."
 
Substance behind the rushing yards. He's on the short list for greatest NFL player ever: He set the single-game rushing record in 1977 on a day when he had the flu; he missed one game in 13 seasons and that only because coaches ordered him to rest a sore ankle.
 
Embodies grace till the end. In the last week of his life, his former backfield partner Matt Suhey drove by to take him to visit former teammate Mike Singletary. Suhey didn't know where Singletary lived, so Payton kept taking him to the wrong house, sending Suhey up to strangers' doors to knock and ask, "Does Mike Singletary live here?" We will remember Walter Payton as we imagine him sitting in the passenger seat, head thrown back, enjoying a Hall of Fame laugh. We'll miss him.

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