Walter Payton Days Until Chicago Bears Season Opener


The Bear Goggles On Countdown to Kickoff series continues today with a very special edition. From this date in August we now sit 34 days away from the time that our beloved Chicago Bears will kick off the 2015 season against the rival Green Bay Packers. The number was worn by and is forever associated across the NFL with one of the best running backs to ever play the game. One of the greatest Bears there ever will be.  The late, great Sweetness.  Walter Payton.

More from Bears History

We’ve been doing this countdown series for a while now — about 66 days to be exact — and for the most part it serves primarily as a barometer of how close we are to the impending season. Of course these posts also serve as a way for readers to get to know the players for the upcoming year, which is nice especially heading into the preseason where you may be scrambling for a team roster to figure out who is who.

Along the way when the proximity to the season measured in days matches numbers worn by Bear greats, we stop to look back on them. Those are special, and maybe none more than number 34. I would say its special to me, but that would be selfish. The truth is that he’s most likely special to all of us.

View image |

I was not old enough to truly appreciate Walter’s greatness by watching the course of his career, but what he did impacted generations of football fans in my family. My Grandfather on my mother’s side, Matthew F. Bielski, was an avid Bears fans and adored Payton. He was able to see Walter’s first four years with the Bears before passing in the spring of 1979, less than two months away from the day I arrived in this world.

This means my Grandfather got to witness Sweetness go for 1,852 rushing yards on 339 carries in 1977, doing it at a 5.5 yards per carry clip in that trademark you’ll-have-to-do-everything-short-of-kill-me-to-bring-me-down mentality. At the time, the output stood as the second-highest single-season rushing total ever (next to O.J. Simpson‘s 2,003 yards in 1973).

I never got to enjoy watching the Bears with Grandpa Matt, but I do carry on his legacy with my middle name (Matthew) and my Chicago Bear fandom. My story of how I came to be a Bears fan despite living in Michigan and having a father who was raised in Detroit has a lot to do with this.  And it has a lot to do with the magic Walter always seemed to create.

View image |

Fast forward nine years or so and I’m at the age where I’m playing Rocket Football in Vicksburg, MI, a quaint little village about 20 minutes south of Kalamazoo. Kids didn’t get to pick their jersey numbers back then, it was more a question of which one fit you and whether or not you were there early enough on jersey day to claim the one you wanted. In the 1988 season of Rocket, the first fall to come after Payton’s retirement following the 1987 season, I got to wear #34.

In some ways I’m not realizing until this very moment the symbolism. After my Grandfather’s passing, every move Walter made on the field was like a heartfelt smile from my Mom to her Dad up in the heavens. Because it signified an end to something that connected her to her father, it was a sad goodbye for my Mom when Walter retired, but now I was donning that same number

At 9 years old I didn’t have any idea what it meant to her. I just knew that it was Walter’s number. Not Bo Jackson‘s number; it was Walter’s.

View image |

I’m not much of an accomplished athlete, at least not if we’re talking high school or college or anything like that. Athletic? Sure, just never had the commitment level necessary as I got older to stick with the pursuit of any sport. At that age, however, I made for a pretty wicked tailback.

I’ll legitimize these claims one day soon by uploading some classic footage to YouTube and sharing the link with our readers, but for now you’ll have to trust that my exploits in ’88 Rocket were Walter-esque enough to make it feel pretty special. I scored a lot of touchdowns and the image of #34 running for scores seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

I played Rocket for a few more years before getting to high school, but 1988 was the only one spent wearing #34. Somehow all of that magic transferred to me for a short time and as my Mom’s “little Walter” I was killing fools. I’m looking at you Portage, Schoolcraft and Mattawan. You know who you are.

View image |

As a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, Walter Payton joined the other NFL greats in Canton, OH in 1993. Right around that time is when Neal Anderson‘s somewhat unheralded run as Payton’s successor was coming to a close and from 1994 thru 1999 the Bears featured a list of leading rushers that is mostly forgettable.

The names Spencer Tillman, Rashaan Salaam, Raymont Harris, Edgar Bennett and Curtis Enis don’t exactly evoke the same kinds of feelings. Then again, no one could ever be Walter.

On November 1st, 1999 Walter Jerry Payton passed away due to complications from a rare liver disease and the subsequent onset of bile duct cancer. In a cruel twist of irony, only such an uncommon ailment could bring down such an extraordinary man. After his passing, the NFL’s Man of the Year Award was renamed in Payton’s honor and is bestowed annually to a player with a combination of charitable work in the community and excellence on the field.

View image |

In a final act of homage to Walter, our family dog (a Siberian Husky) gave birth to her second litter of puppies around the time of Payton’s passing and the one we kept was named Sweetness. Of course the dog was an absolute jerk, but that’s beside the point. In our family Walter’s legacy lived on.

Payton retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards and only Emmitt Smith eventually passed him to bump Walter down to the number two spot. No active player right now, short of possibly Adrian Peterson (10,190 yards), has a snowball’s chance in hell of catching Payton’s mark. With a strong 2015, Peterson could vault into the top 15 but it will take several more strong years to get anywhere close to the top two.

For me, Payton will always be a player that evokes strong feelings of family and Bear pride. For my money, he’s the best running back of my lifetime. BEAR DOWN.

Next: Who Are the Five All-Time Greatest Bear Running Backs?

More from Bear Goggles On