Thousands Mourn For Payton

Mike Ditka senses a sweet reunion from above for Walter Payton, the player fans called "Sweetness."

"It's a sad time, but you know God called him home. And I believe Mr. (George) Halas has him up in heaven now, and he's got the greatest Bear of all time," Ditka said.

Ditka, Payton's family, his close friends and teammates, many wearing "Sweetness!!!" buttons, came to mourn and honor their friend and father, who was the NFL's greatest rusher.

During an emotional, invitation-only memorial service Friday that drew about 1,200 people, they remembered Payton's practical jokes, his passion for those around him, his determination to be the best at what he did, his generosity.

Payton died Monday of bile duct cancer at age 45.

Thousands of Bears fans filed into Soldier Field this morning for a public memorial, many carrying signs in tribute and others dressed in Payton's familiar No. 34 jersey.

The number 34 was painted in blue, white and orange the Bears' colors at the 30-yard lines. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the scheduled speakers.

Teammate Mike Singletary, one of five who offered a tribute at Friday's service, said if Payton saw people crying he would say: "'Hold everything I'm on hallowed ground. I'm running hills. I'm running on clouds. I'm running on stars. I'm on the moon."

Payton, the National Football League leader in yards gained (16,726) and carries (3,838), was known for his durability. He missed just one game in his 13-year career with the Bears. That made his death seem all the more unbelievable to many.

The mourners included NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and many of Payton's teammates from the Bears' 1985 team that won the Super Bowl.

"He affected so many people in a positive way, not only through athletic prowess, but through his generosity and for the way he lived his life," said Ditka, the coach of that Bears team that went 18-1.

"Yeah, it isn't fair. Forty-five years on this Earth, you should be in the prime of your life. But I think it warns us that tomorrow is not promised."

The altar at the Life Changers International Church was awash in flowers, many of them orange. One arrangement formed the "34" that Payton wore first at Jackson State and then with the Bears.

At the altar's center was a color portrait of Payton in his Chicago uniform, with his trademark white headband. Payton's body was cremated, and his ashes were in a vase on the altar, a spokeswoman said.

Jarrett Payton, who at the age of 12 introduced his father at his Hall of Fame induction, said, "Little did I know that six years later, I'd be standing before you."

Jarrett told the assembly how as a child, when his father needed him, he would whistle. No matter where he was, he could always hear that whistle.

He heard the whistle as he got off the bus before playing his first high school gam at tailback after switching from soccer.

He understood that his father was saying: "Represent me well."

Two weeks ago, the University of Miami, where Jarrett plays, was trailing Boston College. Jarrett said that, while he knew his father was at home watching the game, he could swear he heard his whistle.

It was Jarrett's last game before he was called home to say goodbye to his father.

"I'll never forget that moment," Jarrett said.

For Ted Albrecht, a former Bears offensive lineman who started 83 NFL games with Payton, the service was bittersweet.

"It was one of the greatest reunions I've ever been to," Albrecht said.

"Walter would have been very, very pleased. I didn't think I would handle this at all. It was so comforting to be in that room."

Singletary talked about the lighter side of his friend, relaying how Payton set off a firecracker in front of his dorm room during his rookie year, the first of many practical jokes.

Other speakers were Payton's brother, Eddie, and former Oakland coach and current television commentator John Madden.

Former Bears attending were Gale Sayers, Neal Anderson, Matt Suhey, who was one of Payton's best friends, Dennis McKinnon, Chris Zorich, Dave Duerson, Doug Buffone, Richard Dent, Mark Bortz and Jim McMahon.

Former NFL greats Marcus Allen and Gene Upshaw, ex- Chicago Bulls star Bob Love, Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, agent Steve Zucker, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois Gov. George Ryan were also present.

Payton's widow, Connie, Jarrett and his 14-year-old sister Brittney arrived just after Bears' owners Ed and Virginia McCaskey.

President Clinton, in Chicago as part of a tour for economic improvement of impoverished areas, said Payton taught all Americans "lessons on how we should conduct ourselves," with his grace on and off the field.

"There will be sadness and sorrow, but what a magnificent life," Clinton said.

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed