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The late Walter Payton was one of the NFL’s most explosive players, breaking records the same way the powerful running back broke down defensive players. Today is the birthday of the man known as “Sweetness.”

Walter Jerry Payton was born on this day in 1954 in Columbia, Miss. In high school, Payton excelled in several sports and was also a member of the school band and choir. His older brother, Eddie, played at John J. Jefferson High School, but Payton wouldn’t play until the elder Payton brother graduated. Quickly, Payton rose to statewide fame as small but speedy running back.

Despite his prowess on the field, big schools didn’t come running to offer scholarships so Payton settled on Kansas State University. However, he enrolled in HBCU Jackson State University to join his brother, and became an instant offensive weapon. During his four years at Jackson State, Payton ran over 3,500 yards and scored 450 points. In 1973 and 1974, Payton won the Black College of the Year honor.

After leaving school with a degree in communications, Payton was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round as the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. After a tough first year, Payton blossomed on the field showing off the flair that earned him his nickname in college.

In 1977, he set a single-game record for rushing with 275 yards, a record he held until 2000.

Until 2002, he was the NFL’s all-time leading leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards. In 1986, towards the end of his career, the Bears defeated the New England Patriots in Super XX. Payton, who still was a strong runner, had a lesser role in the offense the following two seasons after becoming a champion and walked away from the game physically intact.

Payton’s physical fitness is notable to mention as he holds the record for most consecutive starts for a running back in the NFL. He only missed one regular season game and it was a coach’s decision and not due to injury. Well into his retirement, Payton revealed he was battling primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver condition that turned into bile duct cancer. Payton passed at the age of 45 in 1999.

Payton was famous for his charity work and desire to help the less fortunate by way of his Walter Payton Foundation. Payton’s widow, Connie,  continues to carry out the legendary running back’s work. Payton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

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Little Known Black History Fact: Walter Payton was originally published on blackamericaweb.com

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