Remembering ‘Sweetness’

By Fred Mitchell
Updated: October 28, 2009

CHICAGO — Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Walter Payton. The family originally had planned to unveil and donate a statue of the Hall of Fame running back at Soldier Field when the Bears play host to the Cleveland Browns. Production delays and talks with the Chicago Park District about the placement of the statue will delay that unveiling, according to family spokeswoman Kelly Woods. She said an announcement in the next few weeks regarding the statue “will make everyone happy” Meanwhile, the family is urging fans to “wear their No. 34 Walter Payton Bears jerseys, headbands or whatever” to Sunday’s game. Walter’s mother, Alyne, will make the trip from Mississippi to take part in the halftime tribute arranged by the Bears organization.

Former Payton teammates Matt Suhey and Dennis Gentry will escort the family onto the field. The following is an excerpt from the book, “Then Ditka Said to Payton,” that I co-authored with former Bears lineman Dan Jiggetts and was published last year by Triumph Books. Walter Payton always had a way of bringing out the best in all of his teammates — the best performances, the best laughs, and the best inspiration. It was that way during his Hall of Fame career, and that way again, sad to say, during his funeral. Virtually all of his former Bears teammates were there, alternately shedding tears and sharing hugs during a private memorial service at Life Changers International Church in Barrington. I recall seeing many dignitaries, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, among the mourners at the invitation-only private service. Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who later told reporters that the NFL’s “Man of the Year Award” would bear Payton’s name, joined relatives to pay final respects to the league’s career rushing leader at the time. Payton died of bile duct cancer, nine months after disclosing he had a rare liver disease. He was 45 years old. The public paid respects at the end of that week during a memorial service at Soldier Field. Jarrett Payton, then a freshman football player at the University of Miami, eulogized his father in an emotional, anecdotal tribute. Jarrett recalled how difficult it was for his father to communicate with him in public because so many others tried to listen in on their conversations. From the time Jarrett was a young child, Payton would use a whistle in public to get his son’s attention or to deliver a sign of encouragement. When Jarrett played in his first college game against Boston College in 1999, his father was too ill to attend the game. “But I swear I heard a whistle in the crowd, and I turned around and didn’t see him. I will always remember that moment,” Jarrett said. Mike Singletary emphasized Payton’s courage and unselfishness “and acceptance of the Lord” in his remarks. Mike Ditka quoted scripture as his voice cracked with emotion in describing Payton the football player and the person. “He was the best runner, blocker, teammate, and friend I have ever met,” Ditka said. “I love Walter Payton. … He was sweet.”

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