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On-field brilliance, off-field class made Payton legendary

The sports world lost another great Monday afternoon, and this one hit me close to home.

Walter Payton wasn't as big as Jim Brown. He couldn't make people miss and be elusive like Barry Sanders. And he never posted a 2,000-yard season.

But when Payton died Monday of cancer, which was discovered during treatment of a rare liver disease, he was remembered not only as the greatest back in NFL history but as a remarkable person.

People called him "Sweetness," a nickname that was the direct opposite of his smashmouth, stiff-arm running style yet epitomized his off-the-field behavior and natural talent.

Payton always carried himself with class, both on and off the field. Following his death, former coaches and teammates, those he played against and commentators and analysts, remembered the Columbia, Miss., native and Jackson State alum. And unflattering memories proved as hard to find as a defense that could stop Payton.

Although I only started to watch him in 1984, as his long career approached twilight, Payton quickly became my favorite player. In fact, he still is.

Every week he faced defenders that were bigger and stronger than he was, and rather than juke his way by them, Sweetness charged in without fear.

When I heard the news Monday, three memories first came to mind.

The first was an image I had seen many times before: the Bears with the ball on their goal line, and Payton leaping over the pile to find the end zone.

The second came from Super Bowl XX. Playing for the Lombardi Trophy couldn't have meant any more to anyone besides Payton, who struggled for years on a mediocre franchise. Yet when the Bears defeated New England, it was quarterback Jim McMahon and wide receiver Willie Gault who had the big days. Defensive tackle/G.I. Joe action figure/occasional professional wrestler William "the Refrigerator" Perry came in at fullback and scored a touchdown. Payton did not. In fact, he barely broke 60 yards. By keying on the All-Pro back, New England had left Chicago's other offensive weapons unencumbered.

The third came six months ago, when I happened upon "Larry King Live." At first, I didn't recognize King's emaciated guest. Then I realized it was Payton himself. There was something cruel about the way Payton died, as his phenomenal body wasted away while his liver failed him.

But for those of us who watched and supported Payton, we'll remember him always as No. 34, one of the greatest players -- and people -- the NFL has ever seen.

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