Monday, November 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Walter Payton, 45, Dies Waiting For Liver Transplant


CHICAGO - Walter Payton, whose aggressive, elusive style made him the NFL's all-time rushing leader and took Chicago to its only Super Bowl victory, died today. He was 45.

Payton had suffered from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease that could only be cured by a transplant. He was on the waiting list for the past nine months at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with about 12,000 other people.

If he had obtained a liver, the survival rate for this disease is about 88 percent, doctors said.

"He's the best football player I've ever seen. At all positions, he's the best I've ever seen," said Mike Ditka, who coached Payton for six of Ditka's 11 years with the Bears, including the 1985 Super Bowl season.

"There are better runners than Walter," Ditka said. "But he's the best football player I ever saw. To me, that's the ultimate compliment."

Fans were stunned in February when Payton, looking gaunt and frail, announced he had PCS, and he made few public appearances after that. His condition gradually deteriorated, and his son, Jarrett, a running back/kick returner for the Miami Hurricanes, was called home Wednesday night.

Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his 13-year career, one of sport's most awesome records.

"I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart," Payton once said.

Though his nickname was "Sweetness," Payton's running style was bruising. He vaulted over goal lines. He stiff-armed and barreled over tacklers in the open field almost as often as he dodged them.

Payton was awe-inspiring at every stage of his career. His 3,563 yards rushing at Jackson State was one of nine school records he set.

"It's grossly unfair to judge Walter Payton solely on the yards he gains," former Bears general manager Jim Finks said when Payton was elected to the Hall of Fame. "He is a complete football player, better than Jim Brown, better than O.J. Simpson."

Payton retired after the 1987 season, and the Bears immediately retired No. 34. He left the game with 10 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and 77 100-yard games. He won the MVP twice (1977, 1985) and was selected to nine Pro Bowls. In 13 years, he missed only one game - and it was a coach's decision that he sit out that one game his rookie season with a sore ankle, not Payton's.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in January 1993.

Payton is survived by his wife, Connie, and their two children, Jarrett and Brittney.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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