When moments like this come along, as they inevitably do, the reflections are both melancholy and very warm.
Melancholy in the way it hits you that it has been 20 – two-zero, 20 – years since Walter Payton died from bile duct cancer and liver failure. Has it really been that long? And along with that the awareness that the world lost one of its points of light, so there’s just the slightest dimming, if only for an instant.
What pops to mind was the memorial service the Friday after he died, with 20,000 or so people in Soldier Field, and not a dry eye among us as the sound system played Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” And Dan Hampton’s hands and voice trembling as he said that he had a young daughter, and someday when she asked her dad about the Chicago Bears, “I’ll tell her about the championship, and I’ll tell her about great teams, great teammates and great coaches, and how great it was to be part of it.”
His voice broke as he said, “But the first thing I’ll tell her about, is Walter Payton.”
And then do come the warm thoughts, which don’t come in any particular order, more like looking through a box of snapshots and having a chuckle or smile at the good thoughts.
The situation recalls a favorite movie scene, from “The Last Samurai,” when the young Japanese emperor gently asks Tom Cruise's character, “Tell me how he died,” referring to Ken Watanabe's Samurai character, who had perished.
Cruise, the wounded former U.S. soldier who’d fought with the Samurai, replies, “I will tell you, how he lived.”
So it is with Walter, whose death wasn’t the thing to be the focus of the moment, but rather how he lived.
I see some of that most game days, when Walter’s son Jarrett comes by in the press box. The kind of man the son becomes honors the father, and Jarrett has this cryptic, can-you-believe-this look when something is striking him as a wee bit off. (I’m smiling as I write this).
Jarrett presented his dad for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Somehow that seems really, really right.
Like son, like father. Walter once burst into a very serious team meeting being conducted by an NFL official on the very serious matter of drugs. In his moustache Walter had liberally sprinkled powdered sugar, and hollered, "Ain’ no cocaine on this team!” When President Ronald Reagan called the Bears locker room after Walter had set the single-game rushing record and asked for him, Walter took the phone and immediately assured the President, “The check’s in the mail!”
The anniversary of Walter’s passing occasions recollections of how he was after games with people. After a monster game (he had so many) and Bears win, he could be near invisible. But after a bad day, there he was, in front of his locker, taking the burden of talking about a loss off of his teammates.
John Madden, in his forward for my book, “The Rise and Self-Destruction of the Greatest Football Team in History,” recalled no one being able to find Walter anywhere after practice. Finally John went out to the Madden Cruiser and turns out Walter had been out there all along, watching some “Soul Train” dance competition with one of the bus drivers. Walter had been a "Soul Train" dancer and said with a laugh, “I should’ve won that [competition]. The girl I was with just wasn’t good enough.”
Then he added, “You know, she’s probably somewhere right now sayin’ the same thing about me!”
What pops to mind is the trip over to La Crosse during training camp for a Bears practice with the New Orleans Saints when Mike Ditka was coaching them. Walter came out to the practice field and stood on the sideline. What was funny was to see one Saints player after another detouring past Walter to shake his hand and have a second with Sweetness.
Mike didn’t seem to mind, not surprising, since Mike flatly said Walter was the greatest Bear of all. He mused that one day the Almighty must’ve decided to make himself the perfect football player, so He created Walter. Fred O’Connor, Walter’s first running backs coach, said, “God must’ve taken a chisel and said, "I’m gonna make me a halfback.’”
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