The legacy that Walter Payton left the pro game was in full view
last February when the New Orleans Saints were interviewing
college prospects in a meeting room at the NFL scouting combine
in Indianapolis. The Saints were enamored of Texas running back
Ricky Williams; now they were trying to determine just how much
they loved him. New Orleans coach Mike Ditka, who had coached
Payton for six years with the Chicago Bears, was praying that
he'd have a twice-in-a-lifetime chance to get a rusher with the
perfect package of power, speed and attitude. So when the
Saints' staff interviewed Williams, Ditka asked him what running
backs he liked growing up.
"Walter Payton," said Williams. "Great ability. Great work
ethic. Played through pain. Didn't run out-of-bounds. Won."
That was music to Ditka, who traded eight draft picks to the
Washington Redskins so that he could take Williams with the
fifth selection. An hour after hearing of Payton's death on
Monday, Ditka's voice quavered. "I think that Walter was the
greatest player who ever lived," he said. "He was a power back,
a speed back, a blocking back. People ask me about the play he
was involved in that I remember most, and it's probably a block
he threw. There's no question he was one of the best blocking
"That's how unselfish he was," says former Bears quarterback Jim
McMahon, who played with Payton for six seasons. "How many times
did he save my butt picking up a blitz before I was blown up? A
lot. Never once did he say in the huddle, 'Hey, give me the
ball!' Whatever we called, he ran. Football has had very few
It's interesting that when remembering Payton, Ditka and McMahon
talked about his blocking, not the fact that he was the leading
rusher in NFL history. Meanwhile, opponents recalled Payton's
extraordinary running. "In their Super Bowl year , we
played them at Lambeau," says former Green Bay Packers
linebacker Brian Noble. "It was my rookie season, and we were
having a great game, up 10-9 late in the fourth quarter. They
had the ball at about our 30. I weighed 265 pounds, and Walter
came right at me with the ball. I teed up, and there was a huge
collision. I hit that man as hard as I hit anybody in my career.
I knocked him back about four yards, but he stayed up and just
kept going. Touchdown. I was devastated; I cost us the game.
Sitting in the locker room afterward, I was ready to quit. But
my teammate John Anderson put his arm around me and said,
'Believe me, that's not the first time and it won't be the last
time that Walter Payton breaks a tackle like that.'"
Noble sighed. "I had some collisions in my day with great backs,
big backs--William Perry, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson. Without
question Walter was the greatest player I played against. Or
Said Ditka, "He was a coach's dream. I just stayed away from him
and tried not to screw him up."