Off the field, the poor kid from Mississippi became a devoted father, a benefactor whose charitable foundation aided tens of thousands of children every year, and a man who refused to use his celebrity to gain a preferential position for a life-saving liver transplant.
Before his death, Payton had been working on putting his life story to paper. It's now being released posthumously as an autobiography called Never Die Easy.
Writer Don Yaeger, who worked on the book with Payton, and Walter's widow, Connie, spoke to CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason about Walter and the book.
Yaeger was called into the project about three months before Walter's death.
"When I first talked to him, Walter thought he would beat this. At worst we were talking six, eight months. It was just ten weeks later he passed away," said Yaeger.
|Co-author Don Yaeger|
"The one thing that's happened in the time since the book has come out and the conversations I had with so many people, I can't believe how many people have told me stories about Walter...some little thing that he did to touch them that they'll never forget. I mean, I can't think of any superstars that are that way anymore," said Yaeger.
"I feel the same way. I think he was a real people's person," said Connie. "From the first week after he passed, my mom and I being out and hearing some of the stories. I never realized how many people he had touched in such a small way, but yet it meant so much."
Walter once said, "Football is a business and I'm a human being. If all I'm remembered for is a bunch of yards and a lot of touchdowns, I failed."
Up until the last week before Walter's death, Yaeger said "there was a sense that things could be okay."
"He was generally upbeat," recalls Yaeger. "He tried to make me feel comfortable about his condition. And I thought that was unique in that, you know, here I am, just a writer. He doesn't have to care about me but he did. He wanted me to feel comfortable."
Although Payton life was an inspiring success story, he was disappointed not to realize his dream of becoming the first African American owner of an NFL franchise.
Payton announced that he had cancer at a press conference in February of 1999.
"Any fan of his has to remember that incredible press conference where he cried with you there, with your son there," Mason said to Connie. "How difficult was that day in February for you?"
"It was very difficult," said Connie, yet, "I felt sort of good about it because now we had a weight off our shoulders. Because I knew we couldn't continue to hide his illness. At that time he was pretty much still mobile and getting around in public and people could notice the extreme weight loss...But it was very hard because he was very private and, you know, he wanted to deal with this just between the family and close friends. But then he realized that it was a good thing, that he had a lot of friends and a lot of people who cared, so it was good that he came forth."
Connie and her children received an incredible outpouring of sympathy, notes and cards after her husband died.
"It's been very encouraging and heartfelt for the kids and I, and has really helped us get through the last year," she said. "I had no idea people felt that caringly and lovingly about him. I really did not know that."