“Never Die Easy”: An Analysis Of An NFL G.O.A.T.

Some people use the phrase “The GOAT”(a.k.a. “Greatest of all time”) interchangeably with calling someone a “Cool Person,” when in reality there is so much more to it than that. Maybe you have fallen into this misunderstanding of the statement that when someone is called a GOAT that they are just an awesome person. The criteria that must be met for someone to be truly considered as one of the greats are as follows:


1. Undisputedly recognized for their talent (natural gifts) and/or skill (habits produced through hard work) on the field or court.


2. They have to be original. Many superstars have habits that they have taken on from other talented athletes — which is all fine and good — except, when most people have an opinion about a player it has most likely come from their legacy. Legacies can be tainted if an athlete copied another (Now if they use a skill better than it was original used, that’s a completely different story).


3. The individual cannot completely depend on the success of their teammates for their own success. If you look at some of the greatest teams in history, they did not have a GOAT on their roster. That is because some players have won awards simply because the amount of good players on their team was so great. Nothing against having good players play along with all-time greats, but whoever it is must be able still produce success without the others’ success.


It is necessary for someone to fully comprehend this kind of thinking before digging deep into the careers of legends. Here is my analysis of Walter Payton — the man who I believe is the greatest running-back of all time:

The Career:

Walter Jerry Payton started his stellar career in the state of Mississippi, in a quite unlikely situation. Rumor has it that Walter decided to not play football during his first two years at Columbia high school because his brother Eddie was on the team and he didn’t want to be competitive with him. After his brother left, the coach reached out to him and asked if he would play. He agreed.


First off, I want to stop it right there. Playing high school sports is an extremely significant commitment — meaning that if most people were to join a team their junior year they would most likely get little-to-no playing time. The reason why is because the level of competition is so great, that it is like they are two years behind the rest of their class. Well, Payton was certainly the outlier in terms of this fact:


The very first time that he ever touched a football in a high-school game, he ran for a 65 yard touchdown! Most people looked at his stats back then and saw that he was 5’10” and counted him out because of his height — when in reality it was the exact reason why he was so successful. Because he was not as tall as some defenders, he could out-run them easily. That, plus the combination of his individual strength sure helped him mess-up some defenses!


Because of his success, it was no surprise that many colleges tried to recruit him. At first he was thinking about going to Kansas State University, but then decided to join his brother at Jackson State University. There he set a then-record in the South Western Athletic Conference for the most points scored in a single game with all of his Touchdowns (7) and 2 point conversions (2) — which resulted in him taking in 46 points in their win! Not only that, but he also set a school record for most yards in a game by rushing 279 yards. He broke both of those records in the same game on October 1, 1972. At the end of his college career, Payton had summed up 3600 rushing yards and averaged 6 yards per carry. Most people don’t know that he also played kicker in college and made 5 field goals.


In the first round, Walter Payton was selected as the fourth-overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. This time his beginning was different. In his first game, he ended up with zero net yards on eight carries. Not quite was he expected. But, he was eager to get better and had the drive to try and pursue perfection.


In the 1976 NFL season, Payton rushed 1,390 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. That year he was selected to the 1976 NFL Pro Bowl, where he was named Pro Bowl MVP. Even though those are great stats, he continued to work harder to get better. The next season, 1,852 yards and had 16 touchdowns. This made him the NFL’s leading scorer for that season.


In all of the first seven years, the Bears only made the playoffs twice. So the Bears decided to replace their head coach Neil Armstrong (and no, this is not the astronaut) with Mike Ditka. So, in 1982 the Bears still struggled and ended the season with a 3-6 record (This year, the NFL season was shortened because of the players’ strike). In 1983 they did better by ending with an 8-8 record, and in 1984 they finished 10-6. In both seasons Payton rushed for over 1400 yards. In ’84 during the Bears-Saints game, he broke Jim Brown’s original NFL rushing record of 12,312 yards.


Arguably the most famous of seasons for Walter Payton and the Bears was 1985. Not only did they have one of the greatest defenses of all time, but they also had Jim McMahon at quarterback — to help Payton out (who had over 1500 yards rushing on that season). That team went all the way to Super Bowl XX where they played the New England Patriots and beat them 46-10 in a spectacular victory. The bummer for Walter was that he didn’t score a single touchdown. The reason behind that was the Patriots were double-teaming him, so he couldn’t do much. The rest of the offense were going to town on the Pats because they were down one man (two on Payton).


Payton went on to play well for another couple years of good football, then retired. At the end of his career, he had accumulated 16,726 rushing yards and scored 110 touchdowns. He also had caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns! So to say the least, an career infused with excellence. He was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, five years after he retired.


Throughout his career Walter Payton clung to the motto: “Never die easy.” This illustrated his mind on the field because his main priority was to stay in bounds and continue to try and get yardage by destroying defenders. His signature move, the stutter step, helped him tear down defenders too. This was where he’d step high and run with an irregular pace of running. It would force defenders to let up for a second and that would be where Payton would capitalize by plowing them over or juking them out.


Walter Payton was such a great man off the field too that the NFL named their sportsmanship award after him: The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.


According to Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton, Former Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka stated that he believed Payton to be the greatest football player that he had ever seen — and even more, a better man.


Sadly, he passed away on November 1, 1999 due to an illness that he had been suffering from for a while. But regardless, his legacy continues to live on and on.

Recap:

So lets go back to the checklist:


1. He was undisputedly recognized for his talent from his teammates and coaches — from all parts of his career.


2. Walter was very original and really trademarked the stutter step.


3. Despite his teams struggles, he still managed to gain over 1400 yards in rough seasons.

A lot of people forget that Walter Payton was so good because he played his last game 32 years ago, but even through the time his legacy has lived on. An absolute legend.

Photo Credit:

By Jeno’s – “1986 Jeno’s Pizza – #12 Walter Payton”. Jeno’s. 1986., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49991739