Moments of Heartbreak: Chicago Bears – The Death of Walter Payton

Who is Walter Payton?

Walter Payton was one of the top running back prospects in Mississippi coming out of high school but was not offered any scholarships by any teams in the SEC, as they offered very few African Americans scholarships during that time. He was offered a scholarship with Kansas State and had accepted but ultimately decided to stay in Mississippi and attend the primarily black Jackson State University. Payton had a very successful collegiate career where he set school records in career touchdowns and touchdowns in a season. in 1973 and 1974, he was the winner of the Black College Player of the Year as well as being named to the All-American Team in 1974. His college years would be where he earned the nickname “Sweetness” for his personality and demeanor as well as his aggressive running style. In 1975, Walter Payton was selected 4th overall by the Chicago Bears, where he would begin his legendary career.


NFL Career

Sweetness was and is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, running backs to ever play the game. In just his second season, he was selected to his 1st Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also named the Pro Bowl MVP that season. In just his third season, he exploded for more than 1800 yards and 16 touchdowns. It was also this season that he broke the record for rushing yards in a game with 275, previously held by OJ Simpson. That record setting game was the football version of Michael Jordan’s “flu game” as Payton played this game with the flu and a 101 degree fever. That record stood for 23 years before being broken.

Though Payton was one of the best running backs in the NFL at the time, the Bears struggled and only managed to make the playoffs twice in Payton’s first 7 years. In 1982, the Bears brought in another soon to be legend to coach the team, Mike Ditka. In 1984, Payton would break Jim Brown’s career rushing yard record of 12,312 yards.  That season, Sweetness would rush for 1500 yards and lead the Bears to the second best offense in the league. It was also this season the Bears would showcase one of the best defenses of all time, allowing a record setting low in points against.

With the momentum of the 1984 season, Payton and the Bears would roll to a 15-1 season and win Super Bowl XX by crushing the New England Patriots 46-10. This year would also be the year that we all became witness to greatness….the Super Bowl Shuffle. The greatest music video of all time, starring many members of the Super Bowl winning Chicago Bears, to include Walter Payton.

Just two years after his Super Bowl win, Walter Payton would retire in 1987. At the time of his retirement, he was the NFL career leader in rushing yards with 16,726 as well as rushing touchdowns with 110. The career rushing yards record would later be broken by Emmitt Smith and the career rushing touchdowns record would be broken by Marcus Allen, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Emitt Smith. Payton is also the Bears franchise record holder in total touchdowns, net total yards, rushing yards, rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns, and amazingly, receptions.  His jersey number, 34, was retired by the Chicago Bears and he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

Life and Death After Football

Payton is one of Chicago’s most beloved athletes, however, a biography written by Jeff Pearlman painted Payton as a very pained and miserable individual. He was a heavy user of pain killers and alcohol to try to manage the pain from many years of abuse as an NFL running back. It was also said that he was not the happy person that many people knew. He had a hard time coping with life after football and battled depression, boredom, loneliness. Things did not get better for Walter. In February of 1999, amid many rumors of massive weight loss, Payton held an emotional press conference to inform everyone that he had rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis. Without a liver transplant, things looked very bleak for Walter. He never received a new liver and it is believed that this rare disease led to his bile duct cancer. By November of 1999, just 9 months after he held his press conference, Walter Payton passed away. He was just 45 years old. A piece of Chicago died that day., pub-1100396528751056, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0

It’s not all heartbreak for the city of Chicago and the Bears though. Walter Payton inspired many around him and he also inspired the city of Chicago in his death. His death brought attention to the need for organ donor’s nationally. Chicago organ donation volunteers spiked by 13,000 people after Payton’s announcement. The state of Illinois even created a special license plate where the profits were donated to organ donation programs in Illinois.

It was a heartbreaking moment for Chicago, but Walter Payton will be in the hearts of Chicago and the NFL for years to come.


I want to thank the Chicago Bear’s Subreddit for their help with this article. Here’s a few more moments of heartbreak Bear’s fans have experienced.

Reddit user chigoose22 – The back-to-back 50 burgers to the Patriots and Packers in 2014. The team had clearly no fight left in them.

Reddit user 11up11 – Playoff loss to the Redskins in 1988. Sweetness’ last game as a Bear. Broke my heart.

Reddit user Adipost1 – This –>

Reddit user beardown858585 – Caleb Hanie throwing a pick 6 to Bj Raji in the 2010 NFC championship

Reddit user Angry_Caveman_Lawyer – When Walter announced he was dying at a press conference.

My favorite player growing up looked like a shell of himself. He broke down crying. It was awful. And a couple months later he was gone.

Reddit user suckmyfatfuckinballs – Where do I begin? Holy shit. Being a Bears fan is tough, but I love them too damn much. With that said… I’ll say a painful one that no one else has said. To me this is genuinely the most frustrating game I’ve ever watched that’s non Packer or Super Bowl related.

Week 13 2013 @ Vikings. The Bears started out strong, Alshon was having the game of his life. He was just catching everything coming his way. Pretty sure we lead 13-0 at one point (I try my best to repress this game from my memory). Peppers concusses Ponder and then steps in Matt fucking Cassel who some fucking how leads the Vikings to a comeback.

Suddenly the score is tied 13-13. The Bears eventually score a touchdown to capture the lead. Then the Vikings, led by Matt fucking Cassel mind you, from their own stupid ass fucking 1 yard line on 4th fucking down convert and effortlessly march their stupid purple fucking asses into their endzone to tie the fucking game up into god damn stupid fucking overtime. HOW??? Sorry, but typing and reliving all of this again is getting me heated.

So the game gets to overtime. Things are looking shitty at first, but luckily Blair Walsh misses a field goal (bet you’ve never heard that before). The Bears get the ball, they march their way down the field. Trestman decides to kick a field goal on 2nd down. Robbie Gould, who’s easily a top 3 NFL kicker at the time, and most likely a Pro Bowl front runner, misses a usual would be chip shot 30 something yard field goal. This game was the start of Robbie’s demise. He’s never quite been the same since that. He easily went from top 3 kicker to like 8th best kicker after that game. He literally kicked his way out of the Pro Bowl. Vikings get the ball back and Walsh kicks the game winner.

The sad part is if we would’ve won that game, 4th and 8th would’ve never happened. We wouldn’t be playing the Packers in week 17 for the division, because we already would have clinched the NFC North at that point. I knew this game would bite us in the ass at the end, and sure enough my pessimistic ass was right.

The 2013 season as a whole was frustrating for many reasons. 2014? The melancholic pitiful season of lost hope. 2016? WR Corpse is more like it. But 2013? 2013 was fucking infuriating. So much potential ruined by Emery’s, Trestman’s, and Tucker’s incompetence.

The Bears should have been a playoff team and shouldn’t have lost the games they did. 50 point ass beating by Eagles, getting swept by the Lions, getting destroyed by the Rams, 4th & 8, and the game I just mentioned. For the talent and chemistry the team had at the time, we should have been at least a 9 win playoff team.

TL;DR: If we never lost to the Vikings the in 2013, 4th & 8 would’ve never happened.

Want to experience more heartbreak? Check out the past moments of heartbreak.

Atlanta Falcons – Super Bowl LI

Arizona Cardinals – Super Bowl XLIII

Baltimore Ravens – 2011 AFC Championship Game

Buffalo Bills – Music City Miracle

Carolina Panthers – Super Bowl 50

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