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Walter Payton

Do Unto Others…
They know character is defined by the way they treat those who cannot help them

In the fall of 1993, a prominent Chicago personality decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner benefiting 650 underprivileged children. As part of the program, Santa and Mrs. Claus, Frosty the Snowman and the Easter Bunny were invited to join the kids that night.

As he was waiting in line, one little boy began to cry. The host went to him immediately and asked him what was wrong. “I can’t believe it,” the boy said. “I can’t believe Santa Claus is here and that Santa would come all the way from the North Pole just to see me.”

The little boy didn’t even know that his host that night – the man who had gone to his knees when he saw the boy crying – was Walter Payton, the greatest running back in the history of the NFL. Payton himself was driven to tears that night and went on to establish his amazing “Wishes to Santa” program.

In 1999, the year a 45-year-old Payton finally succumbed to a rare liver disease, the Walter Payton Foundation gave 50,000 underprivileged kids a Christmas of their very own. It was a feat Walter was not able to witness firsthand, but with each child receiving clothes and toys in gift bags valued at $100 apiece, it was a record-breaking event nonetheless.

payton 2“Gifts on Christmas for abused and neglected children may not seem like a lot, but in terms of establishing self-worth, confidence, and a feeling of pride, I believe it may mean everything,” Payton said. “Too many of us only take. We don’t give. Fame is what you have taken. Character is what you give. I wanted to have character because football already gave me fame.”

That it did. But Walter “Sweetness” Payton had character long before football made him famous. On the field, he was a nine-time Pro Bowler, took the Bears to a 1985 Super Bowl title and broke Jim Brown’s all-time record for career rushing yards.

Payton ran with the motto “Never die easy.” He never quit running, choosing instead to bounce off, over and through tacklers. He never went down or out of bounds voluntarily. In 13 NFL seasons, he missed only one game, making “invincible” a word often used to describe him.

Walter ran as hard as he could every season, every game and every down. He said he did it for the hard-working man who spent everything he had to take his family to the top of the stands and watch the one and only Bears’ game they could ever afford. He wanted that man to be able to say he saw Walter Payton at his very best.

payton 3“His effect on all of us was unmistakable,” ESPN’s Chris Berman said. “Whether he met you once or 100 times, he made everyone around him feel important, and in that way, he was truly a superstar.”

Walter would tell you that making others feel special was his reason for being. He proudly hung a sign above a desk in his house quoting the legendary John Wooden: “You cannot live a perfect day without doing something for someone who cannot repay you.”

Walter Payton lived so many perfect days in just 45 years of life and, because of that, his legacy will live on for generations.

Tips From the Great Ones

Walter Payton treated everyone the same, whether he knew them or not. He never refused an autograph and he never signed one without chatting and being personable either – he said it meant more that way. Walter had no motives. He liked people and he just wanted to make a difference in their lives. Everything he did came from the heart.

payton 4No one outside of the Walter Payton Foundation knew where the thousands of $100 gift bags came from each year until after Payton had passed. Then the world learned that Payton had traded in his fame, agreeing to do appearances for companies if they donated to the cause. He did so in lieu of cash for himself.

I had the incredible opportunity to spend time with Walter while writing his autobiography during the last few weeks of his life. Number 34 was as good a football player as anyone will ever see, but what made Sweetness so sweet was that he always gave without expecting anything in return.


How do you treat people? Take time out of your day to lend a hand to someone you don’t know. Offer an unexpected compliment. Show a true interest in the lives and challenges of those around you.

payton 5“(My father) told me when I was young that it was your responsibility, once you’ve had some success, to reach back and bring someone with you,” Payton said. “You cannot achieve great success without being helped along the way. Someone gave to you. That’s why it is your job to give back. Do anything that might make the world a better place for someone.”

Walter Payton didn’t wait for Christmas to live out his father’s creed. He did it daily.

To learn more about Walter “Sweetness” Payton and his legacy, order his biography here.

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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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