His career total included 16,726 rushing yards for the Chicago Bears in 13 seasons, first on the all time list at his retirement. Since then, Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys surpassed the total of Walter Payton with 17,418 in 14 seasons. Payton, a former standout at Jackson State, who died in 1999, won the NFL rushing title for five straight years, from 1976-1980, rushed for 275 yards against Minnesota in 1977, rushed for more than 100 yards 77 times, scored 110 rushing touchdowns, and accounted for 21,803 net yards during an illustrious Hall of Fame career. He was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1977 and 1985, the season the Bears won the Super Bowl. As great as he was as a football player, not many know his accomplishments as a humanitarian, but as a demonstration that they were many, the NFL Man of the Year Award was renamed the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. He missed one game during his rookie season and then played in 186 straight games.
In 1998 Payton who retired in 1988, announced he had Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a condition which might lead to cancer of the bile ducts in the liver. On November 1, 1999, he died. Organ donation skyrocketed in Illinois since his death.
Before his death, Walter Payton founded the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation to provide emotional healing of neglected, abused, and underprivileged children by helping to build self esteem and encourage a better family unit. The Foundation’s goal is to help children in Illinois.
“Children have always brought a tremendous amount of joy to me, and I feel if you can catch them at a young age, you can really change a life,” Walter Payton said, as quoted on the official website of the foundation, www.payton34.com. He added that one act of kindness has a 40% chance of “making that child have a completely different outcome” in his or her life.
The foundation has a Holiday Giving Program and is committed to giving gifts to as many needy children as possible each December. The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation works closely with the state of Illinois to be certain that the neediest children receive the gifts. In December 2001 about 15,000 children received toys and clothes. In December 2002 about 20,000 people received the gifts. The children were so needy they would not have received any gifts without the foundation and the people and organizations that made donations.
In August 2001 the foundation had its first Back to School Supply Drive. State Farm Insurance partnered with the foundation, and several other groups gave supplies. About 300 children received bags with quality school supplies. In August 2002 and 2003 that number increased to 400. Plans in the future include providing supplies to every needy child in the state.
Possible future programs include educational, mentorship, and sporting programs for children.
Connie Payton said her husband, Walter, started the foundation to help needy and neglected children, and Walter made the Payton name something special. She said Walter created the foundation, and the family accepts the challenge to make only good things happen in the Payton name.
Sponsors which have helped, besides local and national businesses, have included the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago Blackhawks, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Chicago Rush, a football team in the Arena Football League.
Money was raised during 2006 by a “Sweetness Run.” (Walter Payton was nicknamed “Sweetness.”) There were two races: an 8K and a 5K. Walter Payton’s old team, the Chicago Bears, was one of the sponsors.
This year the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation will also have the 3rd annual Walter Payton 16,726 yard run, September 16, 2006, along with a new 5K run, and a new 9.5 mile team three person relay to benefit the Walter Payton Cancer Fund. The foundation hopes for a cure for cancer. All funds raised are administered by the Cancer Treatment Research Foundation. The money is used for such purposes as nutritional oncology, immuno-therapy, gene therapy, angiostatistics, and novel uses of traditional therapy.
A new donor awareness license plate program was unveiled in Illinois Connie Payton and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, with the new plates to be available January 1, 2001. The plate was a joint effort between White’s office and the Chicago Bears, with proceeds from the plates to be used to promote organ donor awareness programs. The plates have a blue background, with orange letters and white print and read “Be an Organ Donor.”
The NFL Man of the Year Award has been given since 1970. Johnny Unitas was the first recipient. Other winners have included John Elway, Dan Marino, Jerome Bettis, and, this year, Peyton Manning. It was renamed the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award after Walter’s death. A lot of football fans who admired Walter’s career, and a lot of people his foundation has helped would agree that is a fit name for the award. Walter Payton won the award himself in 1977.