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Still hard to believe what happened to Payton
By Mike Imrem | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/31/2009 7:26 PM | Updated: 10/31/2009 9:42 PM

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The nickname was "Sweetness" but it could have been "Fitness."

That's why the same sentiment applies 10 years later: Walter Payton, of all people?

Watching Payton run the football for the Bears left the impression he was less mortal than us mere mortals.

Then on Nov. 1, 1999, just a dozen years after retiring as the NFL's career rushing leader, Payton was inflicted with a rare autoimmune liver disease.

Before you could say "greatest football player ever," the greatest football player ever died waiting for a liver transplant.

"We all thought this is bad but if anybody could beat it, it was Walter," friend and Bears teammate Mike Adamle recalled last week.

Then he added, "He probably never had a chance."

When Payton died I selfishly felt as badly for me - for all of us - as for him.

If indiscriminate disease could destroy the indestructible Walter Payton so rapidly and routinely at age 45, what chance do the rest of us have to get out of here alive?

No chance, naturally, which we all know going in. Yet Payton's passing was a numbing reminder because he was such a physical specimen.

A ceremony during halftime of today's Bears-Browns game in Soldier Field will commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Payton's death.

He will be honored and his family's mission to heighten awareness for organ donation will be illuminated.

In a way that makes Payton as valuable in death as he was in football, and he was most valuable in football.

Just showing up is gigantic in this sport. Showing up all the time is freakish. Walter Payton was a freak.

The man wouldn't acknowledge when he was hurt, which as a running back was just about every week of his career.

"I don't know how many times he carried the ball, 3,000 maybe," Adamle said. "That's 9,000 hits because it took three guys to take him down. Pound for pound he was the strongest guy in the league."

Any given Monday would start with whispers that Payton's ankle ached or his knee throbbed or his shoulder burned, but he quietly went about the business of preparing for the following Sunday.

Adamle said that Payton's widow Connie told him, "If Walter was hurt he never let me know."

Payton isn't the career rushing leader anymore. Emmitt Smith is. Nor is Payton the best running back ever. Jim Brown is.

But Payton still is the best football player ever because he ran, caught passes, threw passes, blocked blitzes and even punted occasionally.

Mostly, Payton was the best ever because he missed one game in 13 seasons at the position that endures the most punishment.

Payton always insisted he could have played that game his rookie season. Adamle, now a WMAQ-TV sports reporter/anchor, subbed for him at Pittsburgh.

"Remarkable," Adamle said of Payton's durability. "Especially the first three or four years when Walter was really the Bears' only offense."

In the end Payton was as much a testament to human fragility as to athletic fitness.

Ten years later, his legacy is that people can recognize both by registering to donate organs at in the memory of Sweetness.