I am sitting in the Soldier Field press box right now, not afraid to admit I’m looking forward to the halftime tribute to Walter Payton more than the Bears playing the Cleveland Browns.Today is the 10-year anniversary of Payton’s death from liver disease at 45, and I am filled with memories.

As a young sportswriter in 1984 covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a central Florida newspaper called Today, I once encountered Payton’s particular brand of charm as I found myself trying to navigate the Bears’ lockerroom for postgame interviews.After the first player I approached gave me a difficult time about being a woman in the lockerroom, Payton came to my rescue. Though inexperienced, I felt I had the situation under control and that I could handle it myself. But Walter was going to help and I was grateful enough not to argue.Besides, this was Walter Payton, for crying out loud. To call him my favorite Bears player growing up seems superfluous. You didn’t sneak in a trip to the kitchen or bathroom when the Bears were on offense in the 70s and early 80s lest, God forbid, you miss a single Payton carry.

It did not matter which team they were playing, the weather they were playing it in or the situation in which they found themselves. Payton was capable of breaking one at any point and sure as that sandwich you had to go make yourself, you would miss it if you dared look away.My mother was the most devoted Payton fan in our house and you weren’t allowed to so much as talk when he was carrying the ball. I remember thinking of her as Payton motioned to me, how I would later describe every second of the exchange.“Go Sweetness,” she’d always holler. She loved that he was called Sweetness, she loved that he was sweet. She loved that he ran up garbage hills during the off-season and that he so thoroughly thrilled us during the season. She just loved him. Apparently believing I was uncomfortable, Payton led me out of the tiny visitors lockerroom and told me I could interview him outside. Then he told me he’d get me other players to interview and invited me onto the team bus.

Now I might have been young, but I knew enough about being disappointed by players I had idolized as a kid. I also knew enough about Payton’s reputation as a joker that I suspected he might be leading me onto a Bears’ fan bus. Or worse, as my mind started to wander and I began to panic, that I’d get on the bus and everyone would be in on the joke and none of the players would have pants on. Something horrifyingly embarrassing like that.Instead, he introduced me to his teammates on the bus and told them to talk to me, which I did in about as cushy a postgame interview environment as I had ever experienced before or since. Fortunately, they were all in a good mood after a 44-9 drubbing of the woeful Bucs.I turned to thank Payton, but he had jumped off the bus and I didn’t get to see him again. I had the chance to interview him a couple times after that in group settings but I was too shy to ever introduce myself or thank him for his kindness.When he died, a piece of so many of us in Chicago did as well.

There are only so many heroes you have as a child. He gave Chicago Bears fans a sense of pride and something to look forward to each Sunday, when frankly, there was little else to feel good about. He made our house a happy place during football season.In later years, there were times during my parents’ struggle with Alzheimer’s when I was somehow grateful they were not capable of understanding certain things. I remember being glad my mom never knew that Sweetness was gone.ESPNChicago.com, Melissa Isaacson — Sweet memories..AOLWebSuite .AOLPicturesFullSizeLink { height: 1px; width: 1px; overflow: hidden; } .AOLWebSuite a {color:blue; text-decoration: underline; cursor: pointer} .AOLWebSuite a.hsSig {cursor: default}

5 Responses to “Sweetness”

  1. Yvette

    So glad you are writing and blogging again, Melissa! So sad was the column about your friend in your exercise class…you always have such a way of touching my heart with whatever you are writing about. And today…about Walter Payton…I could actually feel how shy you were when you didn’t want to introduce yourself after that that 1st interview with him. I guess that’s why I love everything you write…you always leave me “feeling” and usually with either a big smile on my face or with a couple of tears in my eyes. Either way, whatever you you write makes me feel good…..Thanks.

  2. Rickey

    So nice to see that Payton is remembered for his kindness as well as his skill on the football field.

  3. Frank

    Melissa – Very well done. I enjoyed reading. So hard to believe it has been 10 years already. Yes Walter is missed by us all. When reading about you getting on the bus to soon have other team members to interview, I was waiting for the joke part he may have played on you, but no he was OK. He knew you were kind and wanted to help you. Somehow in later interviews I’m sure he remembered you.

    Very good story.


  4. Don

    Melissa, a nice tribute to Walter Payton. Are you aware that there is a plaque at the Nickol Knoll golf course in Arlington Heights which indicates the hill where Walter Payton ran up and down every year to get in shape before he went off to training camp? The golf course is just a short distance from Rt. 53, just off of Dundee Road.

  5. Yvette

    Melissa: No…I am not a stalker…just miss your blog. Hope you are writing professionally and making $ rather than just receiving comments from your “blog” fans. I read article from ESPN.com about Bulls/Lakers game from 12-15. You were absolutely correct. Was there and kept thinking that DR had to just take the ball and do what he does…no matter what he is told. Was glad to get article (my son sent to me) and so then I know you are fine. BUT…sorry.. I still miss the blog!


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