Chicago Bears: Best Player by Decade – 1970s and 1980s

Chicago Bears (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
Chicago Bears (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The 1970s were a bit of a downtime for the Chicago Bears. It would not be until the 80s when they finally found success. And they found a lot of their success rushing the football with the help of star Walter Payton. He was the best player, for the Bears, in the 70s and 80s.

Walter Jerry Payton was born on July 25, 1954, in Columbia, Mississippi. He didn’t start playing organized football until he was a junior in high school and from the moment he stepped on the field, he excelled. In fact, his first carry as a running back resulted in a 65-yard touchdown. He had what it took to be a football player and it showed right from the start. He was destined to be a star.

Following his successful high school football career, Payton went on to Jackson State to play football at the collegiate level. Payton didn’t receive any offers to play football from the much closer SEC schools but did get an offer, and committed to it, from Kansas State University.

He decommitted from there and followed his brother to Jackson State where he starred at running back. Payton broke records and won awards while he was there and caught the eye of NFL scouts who were poised to take him early in the draft.

He really impressed scouts from the Bears and they selected him fourth overall in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft. With Gayle Sayers done due to injury (and gone a few years before) the Bears needed a strong and fast running back that could help carry the load on offense. Payton was that guy.

Unlike his college career, Payton was not a huge success to start in the NFL. However, as time wore on, he got better and was soon a star in the NFL. In his second season in the league, he rushed for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns. His performance the next year was even better as he rushed for 1,852 yards and 16 touchdowns.

It seemed as if the sky was the limit for Payton and he kept up his consistent play. He earned many honors and awards along the way but nothing would be greater than getting to and playing in the Super Bowl. Payton helped lead a dominant team to record victories in 1985 capping it all off with a trip to play against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Bears won that game but Payton didn’t score a touchdown. It wasn’t a happy moment for him and he deserved to score in that game.

More from Bears History

After the 1985 season, the Bears went on and won several more games with Payton helping to lead the way. Unfortunately, they never made it to the Super Bowl again. Payton continued to put up some strong rushing numbers in 1986, gaining 1,333 yards. However, he was ready to move on from football and retired at the end of their short playoff run in 1987.

He went down as the greatest player in Chicago Bears’ history and quite possibly NFL history. He had earned the rushing record for lifetime career yards, held the single-game rushing record and the career touchdown record (all since broken). He had a highlight reel a mile long and he had a Super Bowl ring. He had everything you would want as an NFL player.

Following his career, Payton got his hands into many different things. He dabbled in the restaurant business, auto racing and even led an effort to bring an NFL expansion team to St. Louis. He was a huge philanthropist providing all kinds of money, time and effort to various causes. A low point in his post-football career came when he accidentally shot someone in the leg when he was playing with a gun. Other than that, Payton lived a good life after football.

Then came the debilitating disease that would eventually take his life. He was diagnosed with a rare disease that affects the liver called primary sclerosing cholangitis. This eventually came to cause bile duct cancer which eventually is what took his life. During the last few months of his life, Payton worked hard on his autobiography called Never Die Easy. He also worked hard to get people to recognize the importance of organ donation.

The disease was too much for Payton and he eventually passed away on November 1st, 1999 just a few short months following his diagnosis. Fans and current and former players gathered to pay their respects to Payton. He was a much-loved figure in Chicago and even in the national sports spotlight.

People will always remember Payton for the way that he played. He was almost impossible to bring down with a single defender. If you have watched any video of him running, you will see that he never went down with the first hit and he would often power through defenders on his way to scoring a touchdown. Payton’s stiff arm was well known as was his high stepping gallop which can easily be seen in any film of his play on the field. He had a unique style that no one has been able to match.

A vast majority of Payton’s records have been broken, including the record for the most rushing yards in a career but his legacy lives on. It lives on through his wife and children who continue to do work in Payton’s name every day. It lives on through those fans that buy the number 34 jersey and wear it to the games. It lives on through the Bears and their fans always remembering their greatest player of all. How do you remember Payton? What did you love most?