Walter 'Sweetness' Payton dies

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The Independent Online

Walter Payton, the NFL's career rushing leader whose aggressive style masked a playful temperament that earned him the nickname "Sweetness," died at age 45.

Walter Payton, the NFL's career rushing leader whose aggressive style masked a playful temperament that earned him the nickname "Sweetness," died at age 45.

Payton died on Monday of bile duct cancer that was discovered during the course of his treatment for primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease.

Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his 13-year career, one of American football's most awesome records. And Barry Sanders ensured it would be one of the most enduring, retiring in July despite being just 1,458 yards shy of breaking Payton's mark.

"I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart," Payton once said.

Payton was coached for six years by Mike Ditka, now coach of the New Orleans Saints, who called him "the best football player I've ever seen."

"And he led by example on the field. He was the complete player. He did everything. ... He was the greatest runner, but he was also probably the best blocking back you ever saw."

Payton was widely celebrated in Chicago, the city's highest-profile athlete in the years before Michael Jordan.

"Walter was a Chicago icon long before I arrived there," Jordan said. "He was a great man off the field, and his on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves. I spent a lot of time with Walter, and I truly feel that we have lost a great man."

A two-time Little All-America selection at Jackson State, Payton finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1974 and was picked fourth overall by the Bears in the 1975 NFL draft. He rushed for 679 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season and the next year had the first of what would be 10 1,000-yard seasons, rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns.

In 1977, Payton won the first of two most valuable player awards with the most productive season of his career. He rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns, both career highs.

Against Minnesota, he ran for 275 yards, an NFL record that still stands. And in 1984, he broke Jim Brown's longstanding rushing record of 12,312 yards.

After carrying mediocre Chicago teams for most of his career, Payton saw the Bears finally make it to the Super Bowl in 1985. Payton rushed for 1,551 yards and nine touchdowns as the Bears went 15-1 in the regular season.

When he disclosed his liver disease at an emotional news conference in February, the Hall of Famer looked gaunt and frail, a shadow of the man who gained more yards than any running back in the history of the NFL.

"Am I scared? Hell yeah, I'm scared. Wouldn't you be scared?" he asked. "But it's not in my hands anymore. It's in God's hands."

Payton made few public appearances after that and his son, Jarrett, who plays for the University of Miami, was called home on Wednesday night.

On Monday, in the hours after the announcement of Payton's death, the Bears' blue and orange flag was lowered to half staff at the team's headquarters in Lake Forest.

Payton retired after the 1987 season, and the Bears immediately retired No 34. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993.

Following retirement, Payton tried his hand at auto racing and became co-owner of an Indy-car team. Payton also served on the Bears' board of directors and became part-owner of an Arena Football team after unsuccessful efforts to buy an NFL franchise.

Payton is survived by his wife, Connie, and their two children, Jarrett and Brittney.

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