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Payton Celebrated at Soldier Field

November 6, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ In the stadium where Walter Payton starred as a football player, his family joined friends, teammates and fans Saturday to celebrate his remarkable life.

A soulful choir filled the air with foot-tapping music, Payton highlights played on a large video scoreboard and sign-toting fans in all types of football garb filled one side of Soldier Field.

The 30-yard line on each side of the ancient lakefront stadium was repainted into a ’34′ in the Chicago Bears colors of orange, blue and white. And the play clock was frozen on that same number Payton carried into the Hall of Fame.

Payton, the leading rusher in NFL history, a man known for his sense of humor and consideration of others, died Monday of bile duct cancer. He was 45.

``In this stadium where he glowed, we wanted an encore,″ the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, adding that God ``had another plan for Walter.″

``Walter flew like an eagle, he flew high. We have lost `Sweetness,′ but there is a lot of `Sweetness’ left. The light did not go out. This light called `Sweetness’ belongs to the heavens, belongs to the ages,″ Jackson said.

Moments earlier, Jackson made the crowd and those sitting around a stage in the middle of the stadium get out of their seats and give Payton yet another ovation.

On a sunny day with a light chill, they responded enthusiastically for minutes, following with a chants of ``Walter, Walter.″

Mike Singletary, another Bear Hall of Famer who was with Payton in his final hours, tried to put the public outpouring in perspective. Singletary had been one of five people to give a tribute to Payton during a private ceremony Friday.

``The finality of what has happened, adding closure to the situation now, is just saying that final goodbye in the public. But as life goes on, we’ll never say goodbye,″ he said.

``As we go forward, it’s a matter of realizing what has happened and learn from it and hope we understand what he would want and just go from there,″ Singletary said.

Payton’s family, former Bears players and the entire 1999 team entered Soldier Field carrying roses. When the players departed, most dropped them off in front of a picture of Payton.

``The rest of the season, I play for Walter,″ current tackle James ``Big Cat″ Williams said. ``I will keep him in my heart and in my head.″

Former defensive end Dan Hampton added: ``We knew him as a player, the greatest of all time. And we knew him as a man, as good as you will find on this planet.″

Payton’s family, which went on stage and thanked Chicago fans and the Bears, were composed until the very end when singer Sara McLachlan’s touching ``I Will Remember You″ accompanied a final video tribute to Payton.

Daughter, Brittney, and wife, Connie, were brought to tears and consoled by Jackson and the rest of the family, which formed a circle with their arms.

The fans, estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000, acted like fans. They chanted ``Beat Green Bay,″ the Bears’ opponent Sunday when the team first filed in.

``I’m not sure why I’ve come,″ said Bonnie Daniels, 66, who drove 250 miles from Waynesville, Ohio, for the memorial. ``I knew of Payton, but not a whole lot about him. He was a very great presence even outside of this city.″

Some fans came to the memorial toting toys for the needy at the request of the Payton family.

Gregory Brown, 46, coach of the Calumet Park Rams, a local youth league team, came with his son, Gregory Jr., 11, and his teammate Julian Vertison, 12.

``Walter Payton was true greatness, true poetry,″ Brown said. ``We tell our kids to run like Payton on the field, act like Payton in your life.‴

Vertison is not old enough to have seen Walter Payton run, but he has seen the highlights.

``Nobody stopped Sweetness,″ Vertison said. ``He is the best for always.″

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue also made brief remarks, telling the fans they had meshed with a player ``who never gave up ... who in the eyes of many was the greatest football player of all time.″

``You gave Walter Payton a home and he moved in next door,″ Tagliabue said.

Payton came out of tiny Jackson State and rushed for 16,726 yards in his 13-year career year, many during fierce performances on the same field where he was remembered Saturday.

Eddie Payton, his brother, told the Bears they shouldn’t measure themselves against his brother’s accomplishments.

``Try to do it better than anyone has done it,″ he said. ``That would make Walter proud.″

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