The discussion of the greatest running back of all time has been a staple of football fandom. Each generation brings a new field of talent that gets mixed in with the great debate. People of older generations stick with their favorites like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith, while the younger fans prefer players such as Adrian Peterson, Ladanian Tomlinson, and Frank Gore. People have always tried to put a number on the GOAT debate with a player’s accolades, stats, and Super Bowl wins. While all of these do have an impact on the argument, the thing they don’t measure is the heart and passion of the player. Stats don’t show how a player fires up others around him and makes his teammates play to the best of their ability. The greatest running back could do it all. He has the accolades, the stats, the big plays, the stories, but most importantly he had the heart to go out there and inspire others to do the same.
“When God created a running back, he created Walter Payton” are the words of Johnny Roland, ex-player of the St. Louis Rams. Not even this quote describes Walter Payton in his fullest. Walter Payton was more. He was a blocker, receiver, and even played quarterback at times. But with that, he was also selfless, and a great leader. Walter Payton is a nine-time pro bowler, five-time all-pro player, super bowl champion, and was the 1977 league MVP. He at one point held twenty-six team records and a multiplicity of NFL records. He once held the record for most rushing yards of all time (before Emmitt Smith broke the record in 2002).
Walter Payton was drafted by the Bears in 1975 and played for them his whole career until he retired in 1987. During his sixteen seasons in the league, he missed only one game. He was a captain for the team for the majority of his career and knew how to get his team prepared for each and every game. Walter Payton ran with power, tenacity, and heart. He was everything a coach could ever want in a running back. Even the tough cigar-smoking coach Mike Ditka described Walter as “the very best football player I’ve ever seen, period—at any position.”
Even though Walter did great work on the field, he did more off of it. When he retired, Walter Payton started the Walter and Connie Foundation which helps underprivileged kids and veterans. Payton cared for his community and felt it was necessary to start this foundation. His community service inspired the Walter Payton Man of the Year award which is given to a player that has shown great community service off the field while also showing great skill on it.
In February 1999 Walter Payton announced he had primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that inflames the bile ducts of the liver and eventually causes them to be obstructed. Every battle Walter Payton went into he won, except for this time. Walter Payton died November 1st of that year. He died a fighter and a winner. Walter Payton lived his life thinking, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It’s okay to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying, without giving it your best.” Payton gave it his all and inspired millions to do so also. Walter wasn’t just the greatest running back of all time. He was a great father, husband, and hero for everyone, and his legacy will live on forever.