Brandon Ballard is a winner of the “Achieving Greatness Through Choices” Black History essay contest at the Charles M. Finley Recreation Center in East Mt. Airy/West Oak Lane. The contest concluded on the last Saturday in February, Black History Month. But since Black History is a critical part of American History, and so is important anytime, NewsWorks will run each winner’s piece here. Below is Brandon’s essay.
What does it mean to achieve greatness? In order to choice greatness, you must understand what you are worth, not let others control your decisions, motivate yourself, value each and every second of your life, and challenge your fears. Walter Payton possessed each of these characteristics, which makes it easy to say he has achieved greatness.
Walter Payton was an African American running back for the Chicago Bears. His career in the National Football League lasted from 1975 to 1987, and in that timespan he received the NFL’s most valuable player award twice, he was selected for the Pro Bowl nine times, held many records including most career rushing yards, and helped lead the Bears to winning Super Bowl XX in 1985. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest football players the NFL has ever produced.
The seeds of “Sweetness”
While attending Jackson State University, he acquired the nickname “Sweetness.” Not only did he receive that name because of his skill on the field but also due to his warmhearted personality off the field.
Growing up in Columbia Mississippi during the 1950s was a challenge for Payton since that was the heart of the racially segregated South. There were not many options for African American athletes after high school in the South, which meant Payton would have to give it his all to make something of his talent.
Surprisingly Payton had not always expressed an interest in football. For most of his years as a young boy he was musically inclined. He had a range of hobbies such as playing the drums, singing in the school choir, and was part of a jazz band. If his football coach in college had not allowed him to remain in the school band while on the football team, he most likely would not have pursued a career in the NFL.
By the time Payton had graduated from high school, he had established himself as one of the best running backs in the state of Mississippi. He was not invited to attend any of the prestigious universities where his skills on the field might have shined brighter. Instead he attended Jackson State University, which was an historically African American school. His brother Edward Payton was already a notable alumni who excelled at football.
Payton graduated in 1975 with a bachelors degree in communication and entered the NFL draft the same year. He was selected by Chicago in the first round and the fourth overall pick.
The NFL and beyond
Walter Payton showed the world what he was capable of in his 12 years in the NFL. He set numerous records, some of which may seem today nearly impossible to achieve. Despite all the obstacles in his life, Payton inspired many African Americans. A motto he lived by was “never die easy.” He used this motto on the field to keep himself energized and to put 100 percent into every play. Payton also used the motto off the field as a way to encourage not only himself, but others to keep hope alive.
Payton was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
On Nov. 1, 1999, Walter Payton died from a liver disease known as sclerosis cholangitis, which can lead to lung cancer. In the last few weeks of his life he worked on his autobiography, which he titled, Never Die Easy. Payton’s legacy does not just exist on the football field, but through his organization, the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. Created in 2000, the foundation is dedicated to raising awareness for organ donation.
Walter Payton is also considered a role model for young African Americans starting a career in the NFL. Due to his success on the field, his kind personality and his efforts to help others the NLF elected to change the name of its man of the year award to the Walter Payton Man if the Year Award.
Click here for a Walter Payton highlight reel with audio from announcers.
Click here to see Walter Payton’s biography at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.