So many folks have asked me about the story of why Walter Payton used that funny, straight-legged almost kicking style of running when he broke free that I feel like I was inadvertently teasing you. I didn't feel right about that, and as it turns out, I had quiet, nice day today. I had time to put together the things that I know about the tale. I hope that you enjoy it.
Early in Walter Payton's career, he was made aware of the low percentage of players who make it past their 4th year in the NFL. Injuries play a substantial role in that issue, and as a running back, Sweetness knew that knee injuries were a common cause of a sudden end to a promising career. Unlike most people, Walter seemed to look at life in a different way. He wasn't going to accept those statistics without doing his part to play far past them, and he knew that he would need the minds of professionals to develop a solution. He contemplated the problem for a time, and he then assembled a group of men whose responsibility it was to give him every kind of information on the causes and effects of different impacts on the body and on the knee in particular. He included those who manage injuries after the fact - such individuals often have helpful perspectives on how to avoid needing their services.
Walter put together some of the top men in Chicago. He brought in a kinesiologist, a physiologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a chiropractor, a physical therapist who specialized in knee rehabilitation and a professional football trainer. They spent a long time considering the problem, establishing what the specific factors were that present or causative in creating various and specific knee injuries, and they used that information as a platform, a place to start, and to build on.From there, they put together all of the factors that they could that would prevent knee injuries. Many athletes train inappropriately - they love to hit the squats machine, or do them with free weights, but they often neglect the posterior, medial and lateral leg exercises. The muscles become unbalanced in terms of their power, their specific function, and their ability to absorb impact. That group of experts put together a program for Wlater that involved exactly how he would train to prevent knee injuries. They also dealt with the reality that, eventually, pro football running backs are going to have little pieces of cartilage floating around in the synovial fluid, and they put together a regular series of simple arthroscopic surgeries to keep the knee free of floaters that could catch in the knee joint and cause problems.
Their final aspect of their decision was the one that fans everywhere saw: that kick-legged, straight-legged stride that told you that Walter was headed for another touchdown. Walter had wanted to know the best way to run in the open field: you know that you are at some point going to get hit, but there had to be a way of running that gave the most prevention against injury. He needed to know how to do this with the least ill effect on the knees. He recognized that when he was open and running for the goal line, cornerbacks and safeties were running like heck to try to catch him and if they hit him just right in a normal stride, he'd be looking at an unwanted surgery. I watched every game that Walter played, and there were darned few that ever did catch him, and fewer still who didn't just bounce off like sparrows hitting a window. But that odd style looked so unique that many fans just thought that this was his way of celebrating another impending TD. They didn't know that he was really making sure that if someone did catch him, they couldn't injure his knees.
I mentioned this in an earlier post, but one of the NFL players, (and I've forgotten who, so please forgive me) said on camera that tackling Walter Payton wa like hitting a concrete block. He noted that players around the league just hated to tackle Walter. It was far more likely that they would be injured than that he would. The quote made the Tribune, as you might expect. The feeling around the league was said to be pretty much unanimous.
I've sort of been contemplating all that I saw of Payton today, for some reason. I think that Mike Ditka was right. Here's what he said, as part of a memorial:
Thank you for the memories, Walter. You made everything around you just a little better, and somehow, you shared that with everyone who watched, heard, or had the opportunity to be around you. There will never be another Walter Payton: He was truly one of a kind. And, many thanks to you, my friends, for letting me share this experience with you. Peace, and all the best to the Bears in this coming season.