Twenty years after his death from bile duct cancer, legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton’s legacy lives on in a new documentary, “Savoring Sweetness,” produced by his son, Jarrett.
Walter Payton is more than a Chicago legend; he’s a national treasure. His celebrated 13-year career as running back for the Chicago Bears created a legacy for Payton as one of the greatest NFL players of all time. His son, Jarrett Payton, an ex-NFL player and sports anchor for Chicago’s WGN, continues to foster this legacy with the release of his new documentary, “Savoring Sweetness: The Life & Times of Walter Payton,” which premiered on WGN-Channel 9 in the fall of 2019.
With his colleague Rick Tarsitano, Jarrett and a team of producers pored over footage of Walter Payton—playing football, appearing on television, at home with family—to create “Savoring Sweetness,” a documentary of Walter Payton’s life and times, focusing on his fearlessness on the field, his intimate rela-tionships with friends, family, and fans, and (a subject usually glossed over when it comes to celebrity tributes) his battle with cancer. Walter passed away on Nov. 1, 1999, from bile duct cancer at the age of 45.
“Savoring Sweetness,” a celebration of Walter’s life 20 years after his passing, offers some of the first coverage of his battle with cancer. “When [we started] putting the puzzle pieces together, I just thought it was a critical part of really showing what we went through as a family at that time,” Jarrett says.
The public understood his father much like he did—a fearless adversary on the football field, who never showed pain or complained about injury. This is a consistent talking point from the documentary’s interview subjects—people like his Bears teammates Steve “Mongo” McMichael and Gary Fencik remember Walter’s ability to play through pain.
“[H]e didn’t seem normal, he didn’t seem human,” Jarrett says. “The things that he did in football—you’re not supposed to do. [It] goes to show how much fight he had, all the way up to the end.” According to Jarrett, his dad played with separated shoulders, sprained ankles, and even worse, but it didn’t stop him from leading his team to victory.
His ferocity on the field was something he carried with him through his cancer fight. “He wasn’t going to give up; pound for pound he was the best football player to ever play,” Jarrett begins. “There were times [when he was] going back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, [and] he was in pain, but his pain tolerance that [was necessary] to play 13 years in the NFL—he brought that into this fight.”
It was around Jarrett’s senior year, when he was deciding which college to attend, that the rest of the world was introduced to Walter’s illness. His decision to attend the University of Miami on
football scholarship was a matter of public interest, and covered on the news. “They saw the loss of weight, they saw the difference in his appearance,” Jarrett says.
What the public also got to see was a kindness and selflessness that had marked Walter’s football career, and was maintained through his diagnosis. “He gave people time, he let them in, and he wanted to get to know them, and to me that’s the reason why he’s remembered,” says Jarrett. “Three days after he found out he’s going to die, he goes out and tells people to become organ donors. He used one of the days left in his life to do that.”
The same way my parents taught me, we’re trying to steer my kids down that same path. Not just being a good athlete, but being a good person. That’s what keeps your memory alive.Jarrett Payton
But his legacy extends far beyond his philanthropy. Walter was first and foremost a father to his children—Jarrett and his sister Brittney. “To be the son of a famous person, it’s never easy,” Jarrett begins. “The expectations for you are always set a little bit higher. […] I have to thank my mom and my dad for really keeping my sister and I humbled and grounded.”
Jarrett followed in his father’s footsteps and played in the NFL—as running back for the Tennessee Titans—but football wasn’t something he always expected to make a career. He couldn’t deny his genetics, but his first love was another sport: soccer. “A lot of people think I could have changed the landscape of American soccer because of [the Payton name] and how good I was, but as a 14 year old, I just wanted to have fun,” Jarrett says. Jarrett switched to playing football his junior year of high school and immediately fell in love. He played with the University of Miami Hurricanes before being drafted to the Tennessee Titans.
It was during his first year attending college that his father passed away. After his memorial service at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Jarrett was faced with a real conundrum—should he return to school? To football? Jarrett remembers a moment he had with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who delivered a eulogy at the ceremony. “[He] looked at me and said, ‘What would your dad want you to do?’” says Jarrett. “It hit me like a ton of bricks; my dad would want me to get back into it.”
And he’s glad he did. “If I wouldn’t have gone back to school and taken that time off, I don’t know if I’d play football again; I don’t know if I’d get my degree.” But he accomplished all this, and more. “That’s what I know my dad would want me to do,” says Jarrett. “Take a break, [then] get back on the road. That’s just how my life has always been; it never stops.”
It would seem that this quality of perseverance is genetically linked to the Payton name. Jarrett has the pleasure of watching his son, Jaden, grow up to share many of the traits his grandfather was known for. “[My dad and my son] are similar when it comes to their personalities, their work ethic, their drive, their deter-mination,” Jarrett says. “One of the hardest parts of [Jaden growing up] is he doesn’t get a chance to meet his grandpa.” But Walter Payton will continue to live on in the hearts of football fans everywhere. “Everyone has a story [about] when they met him,” Jarrett says.
Jarrett encourages the legacy of philanthropy through his own charity, the Jarrett Payton Foundation. Launched in 2011, the Foundation’s signature initiative is PROJECT: NO BULL, an in-school, anti-bullying program that seeks to create and maintain safe environments for youth. “My family taught me what it means to give back in service, doing things for other people that might not have what you have,” Jarrett says. “My mom always says, ‘Giving back in service is the rent you pay while you’re on this Earth.’”
This is something the new generation of Paytons will learn as well. Jarrett’s son and daughter, Madison, will know their grandfather—his kindness to those less fortunate, his perseverance in life and on the field, and his dedication to his community of fans. “The same way my parents taught me, we’re trying to steer my kids down that same path. Not just being a good athlete, but being a good person. That’s what keeps your memory alive.”