Sports writer Rick Cleveland talks about football great Walter Payton’s death 20 years later

Walter Payton died 20 years ago today – 20 years, and I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Walter Jerry Payton, born July 25, 1954, in Columbia, was the best football player I ever saw. Period. He could run it, he could catch it, he could kick it, he could punt it, and he could throw it. And he was the best blocking running back I ever saw, as well. He knocked 285-pound defensive ends backwards. Running with the football surely was what he did best. He could run between the tackles and he could run wide. Had he not been so valuable as an offensive player, he surely would have been the best strong safety ever. He was made for physical contact. When you tackled him, it hurt you worse than it hurt him.

I asked D.D. Lewis one time who was the toughest man he ever had to tackle. D.D. didn’t hesitate.

“Walter Payton,” D.D. answered. “It was like tackling a 215-pound bowling ball. It hurt. I mean, it really hurt.”

Walter and I were from the same neck of the woods, he from Columbia and I from Hattiesburg. I was about 21 months older than he, and was working as a teenaged sportswriter for the Hattiesburg American when he began to play football for the Columbia Wildcats. Columbia was on the outskirts of our circulation area, but we had a stringer who called in the report of the Columbia games every Friday night.

Her name was Eva B. Beets, and she had a drawl that was so rich, so Southern and so molasses-slow she could make football into a four-syllable word. “Rickey,” she’d begin every Friday night, “you are not going to believe what that Payton boy went and did tonight.”

Once, Mrs. Beets told me, “Rickey, he scored six touchdowns and on the last one he ran the last 30 yards backwards.”

As it turned out, that’s why surely one of the greatest football players who ever lived wasn’t offered a scholarship by Ole Miss, Mississippi State or nearby Southern Miss. This was right at the cusp of integration. The Mississippi schools were recruiting what some coaches would call “the right kind of black players.”

They wanted black players who would hand the ball to the official after they scored a touchdown, not run the last 30 yards backwards.

I remember thinking, “You know, you can teach a kid to hand the ball to the referee. You can’t teach him to run for six touchdowns.”

So Walter went to Jackson State where he scored 63 touchdowns (and kicked 53 extra points). And, yes, coaches taught him to hand the ball to the official after he scored.
Hattiesburg attorney Bud Holmes, a close friend of my family, became Walter’s agent. And that’s when I got to know both Payton and his family, especially his lovely mother, Alyne Payton, one of the sweetest ladies I ever met.

Mrs. Payton and I flew to one of Walter’s December Chicago Bears games together in Holmes’ Learjet. I was a little bit scared; she was more than a little bit. We held hands as we landed at Lakefront almost sliding into Lake Michigan on the icy landing strip. She had a grip.

He made us proud, Walter did. His teammates loved him. Fans loved him. Heck, even the officials loved him. He was nicknamed “Sweetness”  because of his high-pitched voice and his manners, but he could be more mischievous than most.

Jack Vaughn, the late, long-time NFL official from Starkville, once told me about the time he was trying to get to the bottom of a pile of players to see who had the football. Meanwhile, Walter reached out of the pile, untied and then tied Vaughn’s shoe laces together, left foot to right foot.

“I almost tripped. Walter laughed and laughed,” Vaughn said.

People forget that although Payton ended his career playing for really good Bears teams, he toiled for most of his career for really lousy teams. For the longest time, opponents knew they only had to stop Payton to stop the Bears. And still, they could not. He famously became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, breaking the great Jim Brown’s record.

In his later years, I covered his inductions into the College Football Hall of Fame at South Bend, Indiana, and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio.

What made his death at age 45, so surprising and so hard to fathom was how healthy and fit he had been even after retirement. His workouts were legendary. Archie Manning tried to work out with him one time here in Jackson. “I made it about 10 minutes before I couldn’t do any more,” Manning told me.

He was chiseled, Walter was. He had muscles on top of muscles. He could run forever. I guess I just assumed he might live forever.

That’s why the news of his death 20 years ago was so stunning. Yes, I had heard he was ill and had lost a lot of weight. We were told he suffered from primary sclerosing cholangitis. I didn’t know what it was but I was sure Payton could beat it.

And then he didn’t. That disease led to cholangiocarcinoma, a difficult way to say bile duct cancer.

That’s what killed the best football player I ever saw 20 years ago today.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.