“When I get through with Chicago, they’ll be loving me.”
— Walter Payton, upon the Bears drafting him 4th overall in 1975
“Walter Payton picked me up in the air. I can’t jump this high.”
— Bryan Robinson, after blocking a field goal against the Packers to seal a win in the first game after Walter Payton’s death
The (Player) Game. We love those. You know what I’m talking about. The Gale Sayers Game. The Devin Aromashodu Game. The James Allen Game. The Mike Brown Games. (Two!)
These and so many more are legendary. And of course this goes beyond the Chicago Bears. The Nate Robinson Game. The Sandberg Game. The Dewayne Wise Game. (Imagine having The Game on someone else’s perfecto!)
Yes, you have to be special to get The (Player) Game. You have to be a damn legend to get it after you die.
There is only one such legend.
On November 7, 1999, the Bears defeated the Packers 14-13 in a game that has been chiseled into Bears lore under two names: The Bryan Robinson Game, named for the Bears defensive tackle who blocked the game-winning field goal, and The Walter Payton Game, named for our beloved Sweetness whose spirit, B-Rob said, lifted him for the block.
“When I get through with Chicago, they’ll be loving me,” Walter said. We loved him long before he was through with Chicago. And long after.
Walter’s skillset was as vast as it was deep. Yet that is not what defined him as a football player. What defined him were his intangibles: his heart, his will, his leadership, his toughness.
From the Flu Game — the original Flu Game — and his MVP in 1977, to the NFL’s rushing record in 1984, to leading the greatest team ever to a Super Bowl victory, Walter Payton gave everyone who watched him and loved him a lifetime of memories. And we all know that “love” is not hyperbole.
Deepening the city’s love of Walter — beyond his personal skills, achievement, personality and character — was his team. Generally speaking, Chicago sports fans root for one baseball team and one Chicago Stadium / U.C. team. But we all root for the Bears.
Even the term “Chicago sports fan” has fissures, with the sometimes strained relationships between the city and the suburbs, Chicagoland and downstate, Illinois and Northwest Indiana.
With Walter, none of those splits mattered. For 13 years, Sweetness was central. That’s why, more than any other athlete, the news of Walter’s illness shook us. He held a press conference February 2, 1999, to announce that he had a rare liver disease and was on a transplant list.
“It’s out of my hands,” he said in a tearful address. “It’s in God’s hands.”
That’s why, more than any other athlete, the news of Walter’s illness shook us. He held a press conference February 2, 1999, to announce that he had a rare liver disease and was on a transplant list.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
“It’s out of my hands,” he said in a tearful address. “It’s in God’s hands.” pic.twitter.com/Ns6LgcZMqk
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that during 1999, I was concerned for Walter, yet never ever thought he would pass away. For one thing, he was Walter Payton. For another, the survival rate after a transplant was reported as 90%.
Lastly, Walter was in the news that year for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with his illness. He became the co-owner of Chicago’s expansion Arena Football League team. He and Ernie Banks made news about opening a casino in Rosemont.
Also that summer, Barry Sanders, less than 1,500 yards from Walter’s rushing record, retired. That kept the conversation around Payton the football player, and frankly, it made me feel as if he was even more untouchable. Barry was going to break Walter’s record. There was no question about that. He needed just 1,458 yards to pass Walter, and he had cleared that total in each of his past five seasons, including a 2,000-yard season just two years before.
When Barry retired instead of passing Walter, I remember thinking it was as if Sanders, one of sports’ all-time good guys and arguably the running back GOAT, simply didn’t want to interfere.
All the while, the Bears were in a transition period. A week before Payton announced his disease, the Bears hired Dick Jauron as their new head coach. When the ‘99 season arrived, the team had its most promising offense since the Payton days: recent 1st rounders at quarterback (Cade McNown) and running back (Curtis Enis), a deep receiving corps (led by Conway and Engram), an x-factor return man (Glyn Milburn) and a daring coordinator (Gary Crowton).
The Bears opened Sep. 12, beginning one of the oddest, most thrilling, most touching, most emotional seasons of Bears football I’ve ever seen. We started 3-2, with last second losses to the Seahawks and Raiders, and a ridiculous comeback against the Saints. There was a ton to talk about, from a slimmed-down Enis looking like a new man to the team’s questionable development plan for the rookie McNown (he would play the 3rd series of every game) to the madcap Saints comeback, in which Shane Matthews and Curtis Conway linked for two touchdowns in the final two minutes, turning a 10-0 Saints lead into a 14-10 Bears win.
All the while, Payton was out of the limelight. Then in the last week of October, word came that his condition had significantly worsened.
And just as sudden, the worst news possible. Nov. 1, 1999: Walter Payton had died.
Payton died of bile duct cancer, brought on by his liver disease. The city was wrecked. The state was wrecked. The Bears, the NFL, the sports world. I remember sitting in gym class the next day, a slack look on my face, holding back tears. Bears fans were traumatized. Walter’s passing touched us all.
He died on a Monday. The Bears were 3-5, riding a three-game losing streak, with a trip to Lambeau Field coming that Sunday. The team announced that Saturday, Nov. 6, a memorial to Payton would be held at noon at Soldier Field.
The week was filled with stories of Payton’s intangibles: his heart, his will, his toughness, his spirit, his leadership. Even facing death, he embodied his motto: Never die easy.
Attendance at Payton’s memorial was estimated from 15,000 to 20,000. The team added a patch on the left shoulder: a football with “34” in it. The next day, a grieving Bears team with a roster in flux took the field in Green Bay to face the Packers.
This was the 158th game of the rivalry, and it was the height of Brett Favre’s dominance over the Bears. The Packers entered that game with 10 straight wins against us, and 12-2 against the Bears with Brett Favre as their starter.
Yet 1999 had its own electric, bizarre feeling. Matthews and McNown had started games at quarterback. Curtis Conway was having a dominant year, got injured, and then Marcus Robinson plugged in and soared to stardom.
Meanwhile, the Bears had a kicking problem. By Week 6, we were on our 3rd kicker: Brian Gowins, veteran Jeff Jaeger, and finally former Cowboys and Eagles kicker Chris Boniol. The three kickers were 10-20 on field goals to that point. Gowins had missed a game-winner.
So that’s where we stood.
And it was Packers time.
They scored first, a 3-0 lead. Then McNown got injured and with Matthews already hurt, Jim Miller came in and changed the whole season. Miller steered two touchdown drives, and brought the Bears into the 4th quarter leading 14-10.
So that's where we stood.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
The Packers scored first, a 3-0 lead. Then McNown got injured and with Matthews already hurt, Jim Miller came in and changed the whole season. Miller steered two touchdown drives, and brought the Bears into the 4th quarter leading 14-10. pic.twitter.com/ngwomc68Wb
The Packers got a field goal in the 4th to make it 14-13, and Miller drove the team to the 16 with 11 minutes left. After two incomplete passes from Miller, Boniol came out to give the Bears a four-point lead, setting up for, of all distances, a 34-yard field goal!
AND HE MISSED IT.
So now we clung to a 14-13 lead, and after the teams traded punts, Favre took over to, once again, ruin the Bears. Remember, Favre was very recently the NFL’s three-time reigning MVP. In their 10-game winning streak against us, Green Bay had won by an average of 14 points.
With 3:19 remaining, #4 took over. He took 13 plays to drive from the Packers 17 to the Bears 16, coaxed us into two P.I. penalties, and left the field on 4th and 4 with 7 seconds remaining, leaving the game in the trusted foot of Ryan Longwell, for a 28-yard field goal.
With 3:19 remaining, Favre took over. He took 13 plays to drive from the GB 17 to the Bears 16, coaxed the Bears into two P.I. penalties, and left the field on 4th and 4 with 7 seconds remaining, leaving the game in the trusted foot of Ryan Longwell, for a 28-yard field goal. pic.twitter.com/KvDGLC3TZI— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
I’m telling you — I could feel the collective breath-holding of my fellow Bears fans as Longwell lined up for this field goal. On the sideline, Big Cat Williams said to Jauron, “We’ve got to block it.” Jauron responded as calm as can be. “Don’t worry, we will.”
AND WE DID!
It had happened! Bryan Robinson elevated and blocked Longwell’s kick. Tony Parrish recovered. The clock was all zeroes. The team erupted — the game was over! We did it! WE DID IT FOR WALTER!
“Walter Payton picked me up in the air,” Robinson said after the game. “I can’t jump that high.”
It had happened! Bryan Robinson elevated and blocked the field goal, which Tony Parrish recovered. The clock was all zeroes. The team erupted — the game was over! We did it! WE DID IT FOR WALTER! pic.twitter.com/6Tq189gSrk— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
“Walter Payton picked me up in the air,” Robinson said after the game. “I can’t jump that high.”— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
That day, he picked us all up. pic.twitter.com/xdDSCg8JCZ
When Dan Pompei and Don Pierson were working on their Bears Centennial Scrapbook, and compiling their list of the top 100 Bears, they asked Virginia McCaskey for her pick.
That was easy.
What does this victory mean to you? a reporter asked Mrs. McCaskey after the game.
She signed deeply. “I just can’t begin to —” and then she stopped, her eyes shut. “I’m sorry.” She looked on the verge of both laughter and tears. She laughed, that Sweetness light seemingly running through her. “I just can’t begin to tell you. The memories in this place. Memories of Walter through the week. And the way it happened today. It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
When Dan Pompei and Don Pierson were working on their Bears Centennial Scrapbook, and compiling their list of the top 100 Bears, they asked Virginia McCaskey for her pick.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
That was easy.
Here she is after that incredible game following his passing: pic.twitter.com/nj838ryYIj
It was. Walter is one of those rare people on this Earth whose impact is felt by the generations who were not here when he was. Even now, 24 years after his death, Bears fans born after his passing speak of him as one of their own favorites.
He makes us happier sports fans.
We can’t jump that high.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, a Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst with the Not In the Hall of Fame Committee, a contributor to PFHOF voter Clark Judge’s regular “Judge & Jury” series and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
In loving memory of Walter Payton and Bryan Robinson.