Still So Sweet

It was Oct. 7, 1984. Over 53,000 people packed into Soldier Field to see their beloved Chicago Bears face off against the New Orleans Saints in what would normally be a relatively ordinary early season game. This particular game was anything but ordinary.

“I remember the dates circled on our calendar of games when it might happen,” said Jarrett Payton, son of former Bears running back Walter Payton. “There were so many family and friends around. I knew it was something big, but I didn’t know what at the time.”

“It” was the elder Payton breaking Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record which had stood for almost twenty years. Payton played for the Bears for two more seasons, and his eventual rushing record, 16,726 yards, stood until Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith surpassed it in October 2002. Smith still holds the record with 18,355 yards. Walter Payton, however, remains one of the greatest running backs ever. He died of cancer on Nov. 1, 1999.

Though it’s been 20 years since he broke Brown’s record, 15 years since he died and 12 years since his record was broken, the legacy of Walter Payton, or “Sweetness” as he was called, lives on.

Fans who remember those early ‘80s Bears teams remember the smash-mouth style of defense they played. Vicious linebackers like Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson and defensive linemen like Richard Dent, William Perry and Steve McMichael made offenses quiver in fear. As tough they were, the real grittiness of those teams came from Sweetness.

Payton brought an attitude to those legendary teams. While reminiscing, Jarrett had trouble finding the words to describe it. A guy from small-town Mississippi bringing inspiring toughness to a blue-collar city like Chicago. “It just goes to show that it doesn’t really matter where you come from. If you can play, people will find you. And if you work hard enough, you can make anything happen,” he said.

Fans today often see running backs try their best to avoid big hits. #34 welcomed them. Whether he was using his sweet footwork to fake out a defender or taking his forearm and plowing through them, Payton made life hell for opposing defensive backs.

“He just never got tired,” Jarrett said.

That relentlessness was an attitude that those Bears teams brought to an already tough city. It was also an attitude that Sweetness gave to his son.

“The things he instilled in me were just to push on and never relent. That’s how I’ve lived my life,” Jarrett said.

Jarrett continues to try and carry on his father’s legacy each day of his life. He was a dominant high school soccer player at St. Viator in Arlington Heights, IL, but interest from Division 1 colleges lacked. After realizing his future may be bright on another playing field, Jarrett switched to football his junior year and never looked back. He became one of the highest rated high school players in the country and landed at University of Miami where he starred at running back.

Payton enjoyed a sporadic professional career following his success at Miami. “Football taught me so much,” he said. “So much can be taught and learned in sports. Football took me all over the world. I played here in the states, in Europe and in Canada (where he played one year under current Bears head coach Marc Trestman). That brought me to a platform that I’m now trying to use to carry on the things my dad taught me.”

Now, when he isn’t working on his radio show, motivationally speaking or spending time with his family, Jarrett’s life revolves around Sweetness and the foundations and companies set up to keep his spirit alive.

His beer brand, Jarrett Payton’s All-American Wheat Ale, has experienced significant success. “He had a restaurant and had started craft beers in the mid ‘90s before it was popular. I always watched him around the brewery and I just thought it would be cool to extend on what he’s done,” Jarrett said when speaking about his motivation to start the brand.

“That was my goal when my dad passed away. (The day of his funeral) I remember standing with him and as I was standing over him I told him I was going to carry on the things he wasn’t able to do and this was one of those things. That’s why I’m so proud of having the beer and being able to do this.”

Outside of the beer, Jarrett also has his own foundation, the Jarrett Payton Foundation, which is an anti-bullying organization and he works with the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation which helps underprivileged kids in Illinois. His latest project is a recently launched custom jewelry line which he started with his wife, Trisha.

“With so many things going on, and me trying to find a way to make all of them work, and work together, those two simple ideas my dad taught me of never giving up and never getting tired have been a huge part of my success,” he said.

Attend a Bears game this season and you are sure to see plenty of #34 jerseys being donned, you’ll probably hear an older fan reminisce about the legend.

Walter Payton’s playing career left a lasting impression on the franchise and the city. Thanks to his son, the legacy of Sweetness remains anything but ordinary.