Publish date:

Fury On The Field Few NFL players have possessed the fire that burned inside Walter Payton

How could this have happened to Walter Payton? Waiting nine
months for a transplant that could have saved his life. Slowly
sinking, gradually slipping away. Life was the thing that
defined him, great, passionate bursts of life.

He played football in a frenzy, attacking tacklers with a fury
that almost seemed personal. He got stronger as the game went
on. Defenses tired, he attacked them. In 1982, near the height
of a remarkable career in which he rushed for more yards
(16,726) than any man in history, I interviewed him at the
Chicago Bears' training camp in Lake Forest, Ill. We were
sitting in the lobby of the players' dorm. He had brought his
motorcycle in and leaned it against a wall. Twilight was
approaching but the lights in the lobby hadn't been turned on
yet, and as we talked, he kept bouncing to his feet to emphasize
some point--he couldn't sit still. His eyes sparkled in that
half light, and I got this weird, unearthly feeling that there
was a glow around him, that he was giving off sparks, that there
was some kind of fire burning inside, lighting him up. It was
the fire of pure energy. I'd never seen this before.

He told me about his off-season workouts, how he'd run up and
down the steep levees near his home in Mississippi, how he'd
burn out anyone foolish enough to try to keep up with him. He
played in 186 straight games to finish his 13-year NFL career.
All of them played at a furious pace.

"A little bundle of dynamite," Dallas Cowboys safety Cliff
Harris once called him. This was after the 1977 Bears-Cowboys
playoff game, and Harris, one of the more vicious hitters in NFL
history, described a knockout shot he had aimed at Payton. "As
he caught a pass and turned upfield, I caught him just right,
one of the hardest hits I ever delivered," Harris said. "He just
bounced up and patted me on the behind and ran back to the
huddle. I'd heard that you could never keep him on the ground.
Now I know for sure."

Now, at 45, he's gone. It's hard to imagine.

--Paul Zimmerman