1977 was a big year for Chicago's Walter Payton. After two years in the NFL, he was the league's leading rusher and was selected to play in the 1977 Pro Bowl, where he was named the Pro Bowl MVP. His on-the-field performance turned the struggling Bears franchise around, but his off-the-field performance would earn him the NFL's Man of the Year Award, an honor that would later bear his name.
Throughout his 13-year career, Payton was an exceptional member of his team, the example by which all team members should follow – in any kind of group, setting, or sport. He only missed one game in that entire span and, despite being the league's premier running back, he was able to do anything the team asked of him, throwing eight touchdown passes and even setting a game rushing record with a 101-degree fever.
"Heck, he wanted to kick," Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka told ESPN. "We wouldn't let him kick."
"Never Die Easy" was Walter Payton's motto.
But it wasn't his football performance that prompted the NFL to name its prestigious award after him. What he did in his spare time left a legacy of humanitarianism and generosity that prompts NFL players to use their high earnings to good works within their local communities to this day.
As a young black man in Mississippi, Payton helped integrate his local high school and its football team. From there, he would go on to play at tiny Jackson State University, but his determination at running back caught the NFL's eye, earning him his spot in the 1975 NFL draft. He didn't make waves in his first season with the Bears, but he would soon be one Chicago's — and professional football's — most legendary athletes.
He founded the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation to give back to the city that gave him so much. Though Payton died of a rare liver disorder that led to bile duct cancer, his legacy lives on through his foundation.
Walter Payton with beneficiaries of his foundation's support.
What began as an effort to help Chicago's children now includes Chicago's homeless veteran population. The foundation works with the Northlake, Ill. Concord Place Assisted Living Community in providing veterans with everything they need to live with dignity and pride.
Concord Place Assisted Living is a 55-and-older community, but homeless veterans can live there thanks to Walter and Connie Payton's foundation. The new homes include food, health care, and physical activities. It keeps them off the cold streets of Chicago while offering them a chance to build new lives. The project is so close to the foundation's heart that 100 percent of donations for vets will go to the project.
The foundation is now run by Payton's widow, Connie, to whom he was married for 23 years.
"I had no idea how many veterans had no place to go," she told the Chicago Tribune. "They serve us knowing there might be a chance that they'll never come home. ... I wanted to find a way to do something to help."
They turned the entire 15th floor of the assisted living community into veteran housing. A mere $2,500 funds a room for a vet, complete with bed, TV, food, health care – the works. Once the 15th floor was filled, they started on the 14th. The foundation continues to fund the rooms using its other charitable works.
"[Walter] was a kind, genuine person, and the foundation was important to him," Payton said. "We always felt that when you've been blessed, why not learn to give back to other people and bless them, and hopefully someday they can bless someone else."
Walter and Connie Payton Foundation President Connie Payton oversee the renovation of the Northlake, Ill. Concord Place Assisted Living Community.
(WLS ABC 7 Chicago)
Today, the NFL's Man of the Year Award is named for Payton, honoring players who display Walter Payton-level excellence in every aspect of their lives. The award for 2017 went to the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt, an outstanding defender who raised $41 million for those in Houston affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The frontrunners for the 2018 award are the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph, the Cowboys' Dak Prescott, and Robbie Gould of the San Francisco 49ers.