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Ben Smith

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Pro Football Hall of Famer and ex-Chicago Bear Dan Hampton was a guest speaker Wednesday for the Walter Payton Cancer Fund.

Memories of Payton run strong

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Pro Football Hall of Famer and ex-Chicago Bear Dan Hampton was a guest speaker Wednesday for the Walter Payton Cancer Fund.
Associated Press
Walter Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his Hall of Fame career with the Bears. He died Nov. 1, 1999.

I know it cannot be 10 years. Too many 34s.

I know it cannot be 10 years, because it’s 6:30 or so and hotter than the hinges of hell, and here they all come, ambling up the sidewalk: one navy No. 34 Chicago Bears jersey after another. Three of them are hanging around outside Embassy Theatre, killing a bit of time. Another has a scuffed football jammed in his armpit. Two more just showed up together, marching along in lockstep.

They all look brand new, these 34s. The number looks bright, the fabric crisp. Ten years, my foot.

Right, Dan Hampton?

“Well, it seems like a long time ago on the one hand, but on the other, no, it doesn’t,” the ex-Danimal says.

And, yeah, maybe that’s because of those pristine 34s. And, yeah, maybe that’s another tribute to the life force of the man who wore that number, Walter Payton, who really has been gone 10 years now, even if he never will quite be gone to anyone who played or crossed paths with him or saw him launch himself into tacklers, hips pointed south and the rest of him pointed north.

Walter Payton was Dan Hampton’s teammate and the best football player of my generation, and one of its best human beings, too. And if you don’t think so, then why is the old Embassy filling up with new Walter Payton gear on this baking night in June?

They’re all here Wednesday evening to pay tribute to a man who’s been gone a decade, which is testament enough to him right there. The rest belongs to Hampton, the featured speaker, who loved Walter Payton like a brother and loves him still.

“He had ‘it,’ like movie stars,” Hampton says now. “The guy had it.”

Then he talked about coming to the Bears out of Frank Broyles’ proud program at Arkansas, and how when he got to Chicago it was shock, just a shock. The Bears, he said, were “a ragamuffin outfit.” The owner, George Halas, was an old man living in the past, losing had become a habit – and yet somehow, in the midst of all it, the greatest running back of his generation flourished.

“You have to understand, outside of Walter there was nothing,” Hampton says. “I mean, the training facility sucked, the coaching staff pretty much sucked. … He was the only thing. And yet he would set the NFL rushing record with basically a team of misfits.”

Because he had, yes, “it.” Because he was a professional among professionals, even if what was around him was anything but professional.

“He had so much pride,” Hampton says. “You know, you see some of these crumb-bum guys you see playing today, wearing these garden variety injuries like, ‘Oh, hey, give me a Purple Heart.’ Walter would take a vicious beating every Sunday, and yet he would tell our trainer never, ever to list him as questionable on the injury report. Because he had too much pride to act like, ‘Oh, well, Tampa Bay beat the hell out of me last week, and I don’t feel so good today.’ ”

Down at the end, of course, he didn’t feel good a lot of days, as the affliction that killed him – primary schlerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts – slowly hollowed him out. When he finally told the world about it in February 1999, he was already so wasted he was barely recognizable. Nine months later he was gone. At 45.

“It was a crying shame,” Hampton says.

Tell you what else is a crying shame: That, like all those 34s, it still feels so fresh.

Ten years, you say?

The hell you say.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at