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Greatness Never Dies: The Secret Behind The Legacy Of Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton

On Thursday, the NFL will celebrate its 100th year by kicking off the 2019 season in style: a prime-time game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, at historic Soldier Field. After months of build-up, fans will finally enjoy the beginning of professional football’s 100th season in one of the nation’s oldest and revered football stadiums.

Like many older stadiums, Soldier Field has undergone some additions—with none more important than the two unveiled here on Tuesday:

Statues of George “Papa Bear” Halas and Walter “Sweetness” Payton.

The twin unveiling of the First Bear and the Greatest Bear were a sight to behold, one I was able to enjoy firsthand thanks to the Payton family. They invited me to Chicago for the ceremony honoring one of the best men I’ve ever known.

It was an honor I’ll not soon forget.

I’ve written about Walter in this blog before, and how I came to live with him and his family in the final weeks of his life after he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that attacked his liver. I was there to help Walter write his autobiography, but it felt like he was teaching me a Masterclass in Greatness.

I think about Walter’s wisdom nearly every day. His philosophy—and the title of our book—was “Never Die Easy.” It was his running style never to simply step out of bounds and give away a yard to a defender. It was his lifestyle to push himself to physical limits (for example his running of “Walter’s Hill” with local high schoolers as he prepared for a season!) Walter played with the ferocity and purpose that made the city of Chicago adore him, but it was his life off the field that made the city of Chicago love him.

He gave back to the people, not just through the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation, but through his personal actions. He was generous with gifts—both the kind he paid for and the kind he was born with. Walter often said that he played each game as if there was a hard-working family somewhere in the nosebleeds who could afford to attend only one Bears game, and he wanted that family to say they saw Walter Payton at his very best.

That very best is what I remember most about Walter, like how he filmed a PSA for organ donation three days after learning he was no longer eligible for a liver transplant that might have saved his life.

When I asked him about it, he simply said, “We all get something in life. It’s not worth a nickel if you don’t give it back.”

On Tuesday, the city of Chicago gave back to my friend and his family and the lesson was too big to miss—literally. The bronze statue of Walter is 12-feet tall and weighs 3,000 pounds but is far weightier because of the man and message it represents.

Each one of us is given one life. One opportunity to make a mark on this world. While we may not all be destined for the history books like Walter, we each get our chance to do something great. What helps determine our level of Greatness is our willingness to give our best to each day.

John Wooden used to say, “Make each day your masterpiece”, and Walter lived that idea to the fullest. He gave his best to every game, every fan interaction, and every family moment. He gave his best to me as his life came to a close and I worked feverishly to get as much of him into the book as I could. Walter knew that giving his best was the only guarantee that the moment would matter well after it passed.

I channel Walter whenever I’m speaking on stage, or writing an article, or spending time with my family. I want to give my best to everyone I encounter because that’s the greatest wisdom Sweetness imparted to me: every person, every moment, is worthy of your absolute best.

The same is true for you. Are you giving your best to the people around you, to your family, your coworkers, your peers? Are you present and all-in?

Standing outside the stadium where Walter became famous, I thought about something else he said to me: “Fame is what you have taken. Character is what you give. I wanted to have character because football already gave me fame.”

As the Bears prepare to kick off a historic season, I’m grateful to know that their greatest player didn’t confine his greatness to the field. He carried it over into every aspect of his life, so others would be the richer for it.

I know Chicago feels that way, and I do too.

Here’s to you Sweetness, and here’s to all of us learning your greatest move: giving our best to everyone we meet.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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