Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff: 34 Days with Walter Payton

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears / Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports
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With just 34 days remaining until the first Sunday of the NFL season, Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff continues today by looking at the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number 34, legendary running back and Hall of Fame inductee Walter Payton.

Walter Payton goes from HBCU star to Chicago Bears first-round pick

A native of Columbia, Mississippi, Walter Payton began his scholastic career at John Jefferson High School, a segregated institution. Payton played football at John Jefferson from his freshman to junior season, but before his final year of high school, the future Chicago Bear became one of the first African-American students to attend Columbia High School, an institution that was up until then all-white.

After graduating from high school, Payton elected to attend Jackson State University, where he would continue his football career. Payton's older brother had played football at the HBCU a few years prior, with Walter electing to continue in his brother's footsteps.

As early as his first season, Sweetness broke through to the starting lineup and became a dominant force for Jackson State. Able to run, catch, block, tackle, kick, and pass, Payton gained nearly 680 total yards as a freshman as well as scoring seven touchdowns and 22 points as a kicker. In his sophomore season, Payton had one of the best games of his collegiate and professional career where he scored seven touchdowns in a rout of Lane College.

As an upperclassman, Payton became only a more impressive athlete. Over his final two seasons, the running back was awarded essentially every All-American nomination that he was eligible for and finished both years as the Black College Player of the Year, an award given to the nation's best HBCU player that has since become attached to former NFL great Deacon Jones.

By the end of his collegiate career, Payton had totaled over 3,500 rushing yards and 464 total points, the latter of which was a college football record at the time. He averaged an impressive 6.1 yards per carry and cemented himself as one of his class's top professional prospects.

Accordingly, Payton entered the ensuing 1975 NFL Draft. The Chicago Bears selected Sweetness with the fourth overall pick, making him the first of 17 players that the team picked, including other greats in Mike Hartenstine and Doug Plank. At this point, the Chicago Bears had recorded seven straight .500 or worst seasons, including five last-place division finishes. The Bears as an organization needed a drastic improvement, and this draft class, and especially Payton himself, were able to help reshape the team and culture.