Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff: 34 Days with Walter Payton

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears / Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports
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Chicago Bears
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Walter Payton's legacy and life after the Chicago Bears

Following his 13th season with the Chicago Bears, Payton retired from the NFL after one of the best careers that the league had seen, regardless of position. Across 190 games and 184 starts, Payton finished his career with 16,726 rushing yards, 21,264 all-purpose yards, 125 total touchdowns, nine Pro Bowl appearances, eight All-Pro selections, an MVP, an Offensive Player of the Year award, and a Super Bowl ring.

Payton's name is littered across the top of the Chicago Bears' record book. His rushing total is by far the best in team history, with the next closest, Matt Forte, barely surpassing half of his total. His rushing touchdown total is greater than number two (Neal Anderson, 51) and number three (Rick Caseras, 49) combined, and he leads the team in all-time rush yards per game with 88.

His significance is not just among the team's history books, however. Across the history of the entire NFL, Payton's rushing total is second-best ever behind only Emmitt Smith, and his touchdown total is fifth-best.

Following his retirement, Payton received several awards and accouterments for his time in both college football and the NFL. Sweetness was inducted into both the College Football and Professional Football Hall of Fames, had his numbered 34 jerseys retired by the Chicago Bears, was selected for two NFL All-Decades teams, and was chosen for both the NFL's 75th and 100th-anniversary teams.

Unfortunately, in the years following his retirement from the NFL, Payton developed a rare liver disease named primary sclerosing cholangitis, otherwise referred to as PSC. The illness took its toll on Payton, who at the time was fairly perceived as one of the true athletic juggernauts of his generation, let alone in football, but across any sport. Despite his health rapidly diminishing, Payton spent his final months advocating for the importance of organ donation. His public fight against the disease promoted awareness about donations and liver disease in general.

Payton tragically succumbed to the illness in November 1999 at the age of 45. His life was honored by the football and greater Chicagoland community in several ways. The NFL changed its Man of the Year award to honor Payton, where each team nominates one of its players who takes action in benefiting their communities. A statue representing the Mississippi native was erected in his hometown. Soldier Field even held a ceremony, in which a crowd of 20,000 or more gathered to hear the words of Payton's teammates and friends.

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Walter Payton was unfortunately taken far too soon, but his legacy on and off the field will not soon be forgotten. An example of toughness and excellence, Sweetness will always be referred to with respect as one of the best players in the history of the NFL, and it is hard to argue that any player has been more impressive in Chicago's navy and orange.