When The Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears played in Chicago on November 20th 1977, Walter Payton, the Bear’s running back, was sick with the flu. But that didn’t stop him from scoring the game’s first touchdown, leading his team to a win, and breaking  O.J. Simpson’s NFL single-game record by rushing for 275 yards on 40 carries. The game was typical of the hard-charging Payton, who went on to break and set records throughout his 13-season professional career.

“You knew, watching him, you were going to get 100 percent effort and guts and heart,” said Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the recent biography “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” Payton has been dead almost 14 years, but his records remain.

Throughout his NFL career, Payton held then-records for Most Yards Gained (16,726), Most Rushing Attempts (3,838), and Most Combined Yards Attempts (4,368), among many others. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, and was a Super Bowl XX champion in 1985. Payton still holds the record for most consecutive regular season starts by a running back. In fact, he only missed one game in his entire career because of a coach’s decision.

Payton’s professional career began when he was drafted to the Chicago Bears in the 1975 NFL Draft, and he remained with the Chicago Bears throughout his entire NFL career – a rare occurrence today.  Walter Payton grew up in Columbia, Mississippi. “But if you ask people now, they probably think he’s from Chicago,” Jarrett said, calling his father’s life “a true success story.”

In 2000, a year after Payton’s death, the city of Chicago established the Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, now ranked one of the best high schools in the United States. “His biggest thing was how hard he worked. I think that’s what draws him close to people here in Chicago, talk about a blue-collared city of people who just work hard. He fits what Chicago is all about,” Jarrett said.

Payton grew up in Mississippi during the 1960s, years of racial tension. His all-black high school was integrated while he attended.  Besides playing football in high school, Payton was also part of his high school’s band. In fact, he did not play football until his junior year to avoid competition with his older brother Eddie, who was on the team. Payton lead Columbia High School to an 8-2 season in his junior year, which eased the integration of the all-black and all-white high schools.

He attended Jackson State College, and was selected for the All-American Team in 1973. A year later, he was named the Black College Player of the Year and .graduated with a Bachelor’s in Communications in 1975. During his college career, he rushed for 65 touchdowns, breaking the NCAA’s scoring record.

After his retirement, Walter Payton coached, for free, at a high school in his area, said his son, Jarrett. But it wasn’t the expected sport of football –he coached basketball. “His passion and his love was basketball,” said Jarrett, “For like two years he did it because he just loved it.”

But it wasn’t all sports-talk growing up with Walter Payton. While most people “thought he [Walter] was the coolest,” Jarrett, laughing, said “He was also the person that disciplined me… so sometimes I didn’t think he was that cool.” Jarrett, who spent 19 years with his father, said they often talked about life. “I learned more about being a better person and a better man than anything,” he said.

Payton died from bile duct cancer on November 1, 1999. He was 45 years old.

When Payton grew ill, Sports Illustrated assigned biographer Jeff Pearlman to interview him.. “It was heartbreaking, and fascinating, and inspiring,” he said. Pearlman had grown up watching Payton play, and believes his continued popularity is owed in part to his mysteriousness. “For a guy that famous, we really knew precious little,” he said.

To the city of Chicago, Payton was more than just a football player. “He was an icon, a loved one, a friend, a symbol of courage and hope,” Pearlman  said.

Jarrett Payton said his father is an even greater man than he was a football player, “I think the way that he helped and moved people, and inspired people off the field, that’s what keeps his legacy going.” A lesson he learned  from his father: “You’re blessed to have what you have, but make sure you give back.”

Every year, the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation helps underprivileged children in the state of Illinois through holiday gift donations and school supplies drives. Shortly after Payton’s death, The NFL Man of the Year Award was changed to the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Jarrett said of his father, “He showed that football players are more than what they do on Sundays.”