Legends of The Fall: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson

When I came up with  The Legends of The Fall, my thoughts were to remember Hall of Fame players of yesteryear, and those whose “what if” legacies due to injuries or circumstances that kept them from becoming all time greats. Yet we still talk about them because they were supernovas that burned bright in our collective mind when we think of their transcendent play. One of those players was Thomas Henderson.

Artwork by Clarence Pointer signed by Hollywood Henderson available.

Now everyone remembers Henderson as one of the most flamboyant players of the 1970’s and he was. However lost in why he was so acclaimed were the distinctions he brought to pro football many observers obscure. Not this historian…and we’re going to take you through a few today.

One of those was his becoming one of the social icons of his times as a man of the 1970’s. A black cultural icon of transcendent play, outspoken black identity, and a reach that went beyond the football field.

In 1974 the NFL instituted several rule changes, the most visible had been the goal post moved to the back of the endzone. A more subtle change was the narrowing of the hashmarks which eliminated the short side of the field as you still see in college football. This called for Outside Linebackers with greater lateral speed and range play after play to either side.

Another subtle NFL rule change in 1974 made it illegal for all but the outside players on the punt team to leave before the ball was kicked. Enter Thomas Henderson. The Cowboys second #1 draft pick in 1975 who had been discovered out of Langston by Red Hickey. It was his speed and athleticism that led to his being used to help revolutionize the game from a tactical standpoint. This gave birth to the modern gunner where Henderson was also used. His size allowed him to bull through the two DBs as he came off the ball in pursuit of the punt returner

He was a special teams standout on a veteran laden ball club that had to get him on the field. He flashed downfield to make tackles and was used on reverses. A Linebacker on reverses?? Do you remember his reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X??

 

 

It was one of the first glimpses into what he was doing down in Texas. By 1977 Henderson had become the starting OLB where his speed was on display to match with some of the NFL’s best athletes covering backs out of the backfield and covering TEs out in space. The NFL was speeding up as a sport on astroturf and Henderson was among the new breed of athletes being moved to defense.

 

 

What most pundits don’t realize is how 1 penalty altered the perception of Hollywood Henderson.

Over the next four years Henderson’s Cowboys were the best team in the NFC as they became Super Bowl champions in 1977 and repeated as NFC Champions in 1978. In those two seasons the Flex defense was ranked #1 and #2 in the NFL and going into Super Bowl XIII were ranked higher than the #3 ranked Steel Curtain. If they win they become a dynasty as back to back champions and Henderson, who had made his 1st Pro Bowl, would have been lionized instead of the team being scrutinized because of the loss.

We all remember Super Bowl media day when Henderson claimed Terry Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Well think back to the game. Henderson made a huge play when he sacked Bradshaw and Mike Hegman stole the ball to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Their only lead of the game.

In what became known as a seesaw game it really was one the Cowboys defense had taken over. They dominated the 2nd half as Pittsburgh couldn’t move the ball. It was the bogus pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes that changed the field position and put the Steelers in scoring position at the 22 late in the 4th quarter. Then a fumbled kickoff, two quick scores and they were up 35-17 en route to a 35-31 win.

That pass interference, which is now called incidental contact and no penalty, caused Henderson and the Cowboys to be scrutinized because of the loss. He had played a tremendous game but now pundits pointed to the press conference and even an on field altercation with Franco before his 4th quarter touchdown as turning points. Great story telling but very…very inaccurate accounting of the facts.

The history books don’t tell you Dallas had set a record holding the winning team to just 75 second half yards. Nor the fact Henderson is the only person in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl to be involved in scoring plays in both the conference championship and subsequent Super Bowl on defense. In the video above when he scored against the Rams, it was the finishing touch on a 28-0 win out in Los Angeles.

That Benny Barnes pass interference penalty made the Steelers the Team of the Decade and sent 10 Steelers to the Hall of Fame and only 4 of the Cowboys from that era.

Henderson smashes into Denver QB Norris Weese in Super Bowl XII.

We know of the pressures and build up to his release in Dallas but where would he have been had they become back to back champion?? Greatest defense in history?? No one has been #1 on offense and #1 on defense and champion since his ’77 Cowboys. How much did the fallout from Super Bowl XIII lead to his dismissal in Dallas??

Keep in mind Tom Landry in his A Football Life episode said on stage had he handled the situation with Henderson differently we could have won 6 or 7 Super Bowls. Dallas went on to lose the ’80, ’81, & ’82 NFC Championships without him. When you look back at those losses Dallas didn’t have a defensive playmaker on the field. Not like they had in 1977 and 1978. In fact he would have been in his prime going into his 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons. Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, Alan Page all recorded defensive player of the year honors in that 6th season.

Would Joe Montana have all that time to scramble to the sideline and find Dwight Clark with The Catch in the 81 NFC Championship had Hollywood been chasing him??

henderson.crush

I’m still mad at him for this…he ruined 2nd grade for a kid in Denver.

Henderson was still in the NFL…just not in Dallas where they would have featured him. What could have been?

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Legends Of The Fall: YA Tittle

One of the earliest stories I read in my formative years learning about the NFL was on YA Tittle. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was celebrated for his effort in trying to obtain an NFL title but never did. He was a part of the legendary Million Dollar Backfield in San Francisco where he teamed with Hugh McElhenny, Joe “The Jet” Perry, and John Henry Johnson. The first complete backfield to make the Hall of Fame ad we’re talking all four players.

Tittle as a member of The Million Dollar Backfield.

Tittle as a member of The Million Dollar Backfield.

Tittle quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers throughout the 1950s but couldn’t overcome the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions in the Western Conference to play in the NFL Championship game. The most glaring was the 1957 season where they finished 8-4 and in a tie with the Lions. Detroit was the vanguard of the West having played in 3 title games in the previous 5 years, winning 2. Tittle had a career year completing 63% of his passes while throwing for 2,157 yards and 13 TDs on the season. He also rushed for 220 yards and 6 scores.

Hosting the playoff game with Detroit in old Kezar Stadium, Tittle and the 49ers took a commanding 27-7 lead in the 3rd quarter. In many accounts the 49ers thought the game was over. They became victims as the Lions roared back to win 31-27. Over the next few years the Baltimore Colts emerged as the best of the west and the 49ers were broken up.

Tittle and McElhenny wound up in New York with the Giants who were afflicted with not fulfilling the promise of winning an NFL championship. They won in 1956 on the broad shoulders of Tom Landry’s defense. However they came up short in 1958 and 1959 in championship losses to Baltimore. In truth, the offense with Charlie Connerly, Frank Gifford, and Alex Webster had let them down. Although Tittle was in the twilight of his career he would be an upgrade at quarterback and aid an aging yet still formidable defense. Over the next 3 years, Tittle took the Giant offense to greatness.

In 1962, he broke Johnny Unitas’ single season touchdown record of 32, throwing for 33. He had never thrown for more than 20 in a season. He broke it the following year when he threw for 36, along with George Blanda over in the AFL, that stood until Dan Marino eclipsed it in 1984. Which was several NFL generations later. Tittle was the most productive in his career at 37 years of age. All he had to do was win the NFL championship to cement his legacy.

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Legends of The Fall: John Constantine Unitas

The name that comes to mind when it comes to quarterback – John Constantine Unitas…  I can’t remember hearing his complete name for the first time, but feel it needs to be brought up for the fans who need to know the greatness of this man. So glad they finished the documentary in 1999 before he passed. An old school American hero. The best ever quarterback conversation has this man’s name in it. Not Peyton Manning and Tom Brady where all the rules have been changed to manufacture what looks like greatness.

Unitas! Pictured in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium one last time.

Unitas! Pictured in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium one last time.

At the time of Unitas retirement, he held the record for passing yards (40,239) & touchdown passes (290). He was the first NFL quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in 1960 and once held the record for TD passes in a 12 game season with 32. In an era where the NFL game was rooted in the ground, Unitas took to the air where purists scoffed he was ruining the game. Through it all he raised quarterbacking to an art form by the way he played, his play calling ability, and field generalship in leading the Baltimore Colts. In fact, it was Unitas that invented the 2 minute drill in the most important game in NFL history…. the 1958 NFL Championship.

The ’58 NFL Championship ignited the passion for pro football for the masses as it overtook baseball for America’s heart. Lamar Hunt after this game decided to start the American Football League on the heels of this game’s popularity. A sense of irony between the AFL and Unitas’ would come to the fore later. Yet it was Unitas that became a superstar. Football had been booming with television in the 1950’s and it culminated with his championship heroics.

For an encore, when all eyes were upon him, he had his greatest season in 1959. Johnny U went 193 of 367 (52.6%) for 2,899 yards 32 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions in leading the Colts to a 2nd consecutive championship. By the way for those keeping score, this was in a 12 game season and the yardage and touchdowns were NFL records at the time. At the pace he was on, had it been a 16 game season, he would have thrown for 42 touchdowns. This was in an era where his receivers were hit everywhere on the field not just within a 5 yard contact zone. Legacy cemented.

His 47 straight games with a touchdown pass stood for nearly 50 years. After 40 of those years no one had come within 18 of that record. Drew Bees finally broke it because of all the rule changes…but if you dared to say Brees is in league with Unitas, you and I can’t talk football anymore. A final look back at his jersey retirement at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in 1977.

In watching the HBO documentary Unitas is where I first learned the plight of former players fighting for benefits from the NFL. When the elbow injury came up I immediately yelled out “1968!” That was the year he tore the tendons that attached the lower and upper arm, causing him to sit out the season and the late Earl Morrall played in his absence. They wound up losing Super Bowl III. Unitas wound up losing the ability to fully use the right hand that made the NFL what it is today. Not only was that a travesty but the anger that swelled in me is why I back all the former player’s groups, Footballer’s Wives, Dignity After Football, and Gridiron Greats to this day.

Sports Illustated cover featuring Johnny U.

Sports Illustated cover featuring Johnny U.

Whenever the mantle of greatness at the quarterback position is cheaply thrown around, as a historian I bristle. What would Unitas accomplish playing in the rules set up today?? How much greater would he have become training all year around like today’s players?? What would his stats look like if he played where he could hardly be hit??  He dwarfs all quarterbacks without the changes. With them he would have left marks that quarterbacks would still be chasing.

Unitas and his receivers, Lenny Moore, and Raymond Berry all made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The next time someone mentions greatest ever quarterbacks, start with Unitas and work your way down.

hof-unitasJohn Constantine Unitas: May 7, 1933- September 11, 2002

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Legends Of The Fall: Barry Sanders

As I watched Barry Sanders A Football Life, they began the episode with Sanders reading his retirement. The closure gained from it was immense. It wasn’t as though I was still sitting here thinking he was coming back after 15 years. We’ve already witnessed his induction into the Hall of Fame, but to hear his words publicly, laid to rest those feelings and emotions that lay dormant from the years immediately following his retirement. He was simply the greatest running back ever in the Chancellor of Football’s estimation.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

To a prior generation of NFL historians, Jim Brown was the measuring stick yet when you think about it, he wouldn’t have been as effective against modern defenses. He played at a time when the NFL didn’t play black players at linebacker or safety. Brown was bigger and more imposing than the players he faced which wouldn’t have been the case had he played decades later. Brown was 230 lbs at the time when defensive linemen were 260 lbs themselves.

Sanders’ speed and elusiveness translated to any and every era in NFL history. He also did it against better defensive athletes. He played against Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Reggie White, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, the Kevin Greene’s, Chris Doleman’s, Keith Millard’s, and Howie Long’s of the more modern game. Terrorists who could swallow offensive linemen, split the double team and had the athleticism to catch a back from behind before he could get to the corner.

With teams now putting the best athletes on the defensive side of the field, Sanders used to terrify them with his start and stop jump cuts. No offensive player over the last 30 years put more fear in coordinators or defensive players. He could make a move and leave a defender embarrassed and grasping at air. Leave them with “broken ankles” as we used to say. Simply put he’s the greatest runner the NFL has ever seen.

In 1995 Sanders conceded his role as the sole focus in the Lions offense. Not only did they become the NFL’s #1 offense they became the first team in history to have 2 receivers amass 100 receptions in the same season. Scott Mitchell (346 of 583 4,338 yds 32TDs / 12 ints) and Brett Perriman (108 rec. 1,488 yds 9TDs) should have made the Pro Bowl. Herman Moore (123 rec 1,686 yds 14TDs) did make it to Hawaii. Moore set the NFL record for receptions in a single season while these 3 put up 4 other team records. Why is this being brought up when this article is about Barry Sanders?? In this crucible of talent he still amassed 1,500 yards 11 TDs while creating this book of highlights

Most will recall that season opener against Pittsburgh when Sanders shook fellow Hall of Famer Rod Woodson right out of his ACL with two quick moves. This following vignette covers Sanders’ last five seasons in the NFL

Did The Chancellor of Football say greatest ever runner in NFL history?? First consider the average running back’s career lasts 4 years. Then take into account the greatest runners had their highest rushing totals within those 4. Sanders ran for 2,053 in year NINE. It took Jim Brown 9 years to gain 12,312 yards rushing, where it took Sanders 10 to amass 15,269. Everyone forgets the near rushing titles to go along with the 4 he won.

In his rookie year he was 11 yards short of eclipsing Christian Okoye (1,480 to 1,470), yet told Coach Fontes to let his backup get some playing time. Okoye got his rushing title yet carried the football 90 more times than Sanders! Next case in point is the slanted description of Emmitt Smith missing the first 2 games of 1993, then coming back to win the rushing title. For every Cowboy fan that touts this, they casually omit Sanders missed the last 6 games of that season with a knee injury.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin '99.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin ’99.

Interesting… to think that Barry entered the NFL in ’89 and Emmitt in ’90, folks forget how big a lead Sanders had at the time of his retirement. Sanders was due to break Peyton’s record late 99, it took Emmitt another 3 1/2 years to break it. Paul Tagliabue should have got involved behind the scenes and facilitated a trade to keep Sanders playing. He blew it….

Sanders would have pushed the record to 20,000 guaranteed. As we alluded to earlier, most running backs have their greatest single season rushing total in the first 4 years of their career. Barry crossed 2,000 in year nine. Even in year 10 he wasn’t slowing down.

One of the greatest battles in NFL history in terms of effort, you need to check out the birth of the Baltimore Ravens as an elite defense in the final week of 98. Barry was trying to extend his streak of 1,500 yard seasons when late in the 4th quarter he had 1,495 yards. The next 6 or 7 carries the Ravens were determined to stop him and they fought tooth and nail. Barry didn’t make it to 1,500 but he made folks miss like no one’s business. Man I wore that tape out watching that.

We didn’t know what was happening at the time with Walter Payton’s health but the 1999 season we expected to see Sanders vault to the #1 all time rushing spot… instead we got this:

Thank goodness for the emergence of Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James because the beginning of the season didn’t feel right as Sanders’ abrupt retirement cast a pall over the start of ’99. It took years for the disappointment to go away and it was reawakened at the time Smith passed Payton.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided those thrills in.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided thrills in.

What was missing as a football fan and historian, I never had closure to his career. I can remember this Pro Football Almanac I purchased in the summer of 1990 and they foretold a fictitious story of Sanders crossing 15,000 yards in a decade. The Lions were supposed to be winning the Super Bowl over in Tokyo to conclude his tenth season also.

It was a very interesting take with half of it coming true. With all due respect to William Sanders, his son Barry was the greatest running back in NFL history.

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Legends Of The Fall: OJ Simpson

There is no more polarizing name in the history of the NFL than that of OJ Simpson. Once upon a time he was the greatest halfback in the history of professional football. A former Heisman Trophy winner from USC who was drafted #1 by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1969. He restored respectability to a once great franchise.

OJ Simpson...an all time great runner.

OJ Simpson…an all time great runner.

Yet he is known now more for the events that transpired June 12, 1994 and the subsequent trial of the century. Simpson’s was a tragic fall and one we’ll get into later. Right now we want to focus on his previous life as the most electrifying running back the NFL had ever seen.

One interesting  note is he finished his career with 11,236 yards rushing, or 1,076 yards short of then all time rushing champion Jim Brown. Head coach John Rauch, who had been fired by Al Davis in Oakland, wanted to prove his genius and played OJ at wingback. So for his first three years he played in a position he was primarily misused until Rauch was replaced by incoming Bills coach Lou Saban.

Finally freed to play tailback as he had at USC, Simpson grabbed the imagination of NFL fans everywhere. He broke breath taking runs. His impromptu style brought shoulder fakes and make ’em miss moves that the casual fan could identify with. To watch him battle against defenses that feared the big play element he brought to bare was a thing of beauty. He was the prototype to the bigger half back at 220lbs that had the speed to break the big play.

Although he burst into the nation’s consciousness with 1,251 yards in 1972, it was his legendary 1973 season that he became an all time classic. His 2,003 yard season was marveled at, lionized, and written about ad nauseum for eclipsing a number no one thought possible. He did this in a 14 game season and raised the bar in an era where great backs got the ball 30 times a game.

Simpson was a superstar of the highest magnitude as he led the NFL in rushing 4 times in a 5 year span. It was his 1975 season that propelled Simpson to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as he broke numerous records including the most TDs in a season with 23. As for rushing for 2,000 yards?? He didn’t do that but he did gain 2,243 yards from scrimmage… Take a look

For the most part, Simpson’s work was condensed in the 5 years from 1972-1976. In these 5 years he rushed for 7,699 of his 11,236 yards or 68.5% of his overall total. He put in work against some great defenses too. He had several 100 yard performances against Miami’s “No Name Defense.”

Against the Steel Curtain in 1975, by the way #9 on our list of Greatest Ever Defenses, Simpson crushed ’em for 227 yards in Three Rivers Stadium no less. This was great considering he was within 24 yards of the all time single game rushing record. By the way he held that record also with a 250 yard rushing performance against the Patriots in 1973. Then he broke that record with a 273 yard performance against Detroit Thanksgiving 1976.

By this time the wear and tear began to erode his skill and ability to cut and change direction. Multiple knee surgeries followed an injury plagued 1977 where “The Juice” played in only 7 regular season games. He was dealt to his hometown San Francisco 49ers where he finished out his career. As the 1979 season came to it’s conclusion, it was time for OJ to say goodbye to the game.

NFL Films named Simpson pro football’s hero of the decade. Think about that a second.  Not Roger Staubach…not Terry Bradshaw… OJ was their choice and it was a logical one. His feats scaled the record books and he had gone where no other runner had gone before. He only played in one playoff game during his career, yet Pete Rozelle made sure he had primetime games to showcase his talents.

OJ Simpson….one of the best runners and greatest players in NFL history.

Epilogue: Once the events that took place on June 12, 1994, with the murder of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, it threw every Bills fan in a weird place. To see his descent into this tragic figure ripped our hearts out. It happened right after the Bills had lost our 4th straight Super Bowl in which he was a part of each NBC telecast.

The Chancellor of Football's pilgrimage to Buffalo. Bills v Cowboys 9 22 1996

The Chancellor of Football’s pilgrimage to Buffalo. Bills v Cowboys 9 22 1996

Regardless what you think of him now, I wanted to put up an article featuring what he once was. He left an impression on me as a young fan and why I’m still a Buffalo Bill fan to this day. I can remember going to Rich Stadium, named after the late Ralph Wilson now, and asking where his name was on the ring of fame. That was Sept. 22, 1996 when Buffalo was hosting the Dallas Cowboys, so the emotions were still raw. Especially among the season ticket holders where I sat.

So here it is, 18 years to the day later and as The Chancellor of Football thinking back to that day. Which had a mixed set of emotions as it always does now when OJ’s name is brought up. I remember when the late Tim Russert of Meet The Press fame, spoke of seeing his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame the first time after the double murders. His expression was much the same as I would suspect with every other Bills fan.

Many people remember it as the murder and court case of the 20th century. No one outside of Bills fans think of it as the fall of a franchise’s greatest player. We live with that more than the 4 Super Bowl losses in the 1990s. Don’t forget…they happened at the same time.

hof-oj-simpson

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Legend of The Fall: Walter Payton

It has been 27 years since Walter Payton suited up for an NFL game. Before his passing in 1999 the question could be raised was he the greatest legend the game had known?? After his passing his legend is unmatched by any player of the last 60 years. “Sweetness” as a nickname is synonymous with those of “The Galloping Ghost” the “Steel Curtain” that will be shared with football fans forever.

The legendary

The legendary “Sweetness”

Although he is no longer the NFL’s leading rusher whenever you see a runner fighting for more yardage, you think of Payton. In The Chancellor of Football’s estimation during a majority of his career he was overshadowed by Tony Dorsett then Eric Dickerson since they were more flashy runners. It was grit and determination that made Payton special. Unlike other runners one man couldn’t bring him down nor could someone shoulder him down. Payton’s spirit was that of a great warrior and it took more than one man to stop him.

If you were to travel back to the 1980’s the standard bearer for runners was the great Jim Brown. He set the NFL’s all time rushing yardage mark with 12,312 yards when he retired in 1965. Only OJ Simpson came close to passing him finishing with 11,236 when he ran out of gas in 1979. Payton’s career long assault had him within reach as 1984 beckoned. Before he could eclipse Brown’s mark the comparisons started. Who was better?? Jim Brown or Walter Payton??

The video you just watched had been produced before Payton had become the all time leading rusher. They edited it before the second week of the 1986 season and re-aired it. He was about to score his 100th touchdown in the famous “Buddy Bowl”, where Buddy Ryan who had been the architect of the Chicago Bears championship defense the year before.  He returned as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Not only did Payton score his touchdown, he had his last true great game as he gouged the Eagles for 177 yards. It was his 75th 100 yard game. Much like Marvin Hagler in boxing, national media showcased Payton in the twilight of his career. Of course it was once he surpassed Jim Brown and his unbreakable all time rushing record was when he finally was afforded that status. That moment took place October 7, 1984.

At one time he had the greatest rushing performance in an NFL game with 275 yards and pushed the all time rushing record to 16,726 yards. Each of these have been broken but who embodied the spirit of the determined runner fighting a defense fighting to stop him?? Emmitt Smith and Corey Dillon come close but none matched his fury. Looking back on all these careers it was as though other runners were playing a role created for them by Payton. As thought they were all trying to impersonate him. Make no mistake about it he was The Chancellor of Football’s favorite player during his career.

The poignant moment that was etched in my mind wasn’t his sitting alone on the bench after his last game in the 1987 playoffs. It was his sitting on the bench by himself toward the end of the 1984 NFC Championship Game. Chicago was losing 23-0 to the San Francisco 49ers and it looked like this was the closest Payton would make it to the Super Bowl.

In an instant the flash entered my mind that his career would be over soon and he hadn’t been a champion. Then the great ’85 Bears stormed to the Super Bowl XX championship. He rushed for over 1,300 yards in 1986 then let it be known during 1987 it would be his last season. Sure he wasn’t the same runner as he split time with heir apparent Neil Anderson. It was at this time you had to reflect back on how great Walter had been over the years.

Friday would have been Walter Payton’s 60th birthday and he’s still missed by football fans everywhere. Yet we know the trials he faced toward the end of his life. Its better to focus on his play and the bright personality that we remembered him for.

Walter Payton soaring as he is in heaven above.

Walter Payton soaring as he is in heaven above.

Happy 60th birthday Walter Payton from a true fan that didn’t get a chance to meet you. Its fun to share vids for those who were younger that didn’t get to see you play or see the footage of your exploits. My gift to those fans in your honor started on your birthday. RIP Sweetness. Thanks for reading and please share the article. Epilogue: An extra video on Walter Payton’s 1984