Chicago Bears
Walter Payton

In a game played by men, Walter Payton played like a god. Or so was the allure that he presented. Not the biggest of athletes, Payton didn’t redefine the running back position in the way that Jim Brown did, nor did he set records that would stand the test of the time. But more importantly, he exemplified the most remarkable characteristic in a human being — heart and soul. Payton did carry a genuine heart, and having once grooved on Soul Train, he also carried swagger. He’s the man your parents want you to model your life around, and one the NFL has honored as the marker for every seasons Man of the Year award. But as we look back on Payton’s life, we begin to understand that no man, nor any god in the canon of antiquity, was perfect. His story, like so many others was cut tragically short and was immortalized as a result.

Born in Columbia, Mississippi in 1954, Walter Payton was well-accustomed to racism, but never paid it much attention. Columbia High, where he’d attend, didn’t even desegregate till his junior year, but instead of reverting to the growing cries of ‘black power’, he’d begin to bridge the culture gap on his football team through casual jokes. A precursor to the prankster we remember him as today, he had a certain carefree charm that could fix any day. On the football field, though, he was a force to be reckoned with. He’d go on to play at Jackson State, an HBCU where he’d flourish into the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1975 NFL Draft.


Many players close to Payton would sometimes characterize his demeanor as childish, maybe even charming. However, sweetness is perhaps the best way we all remember him. He’d joke with teammates, one time shouting, “your sweetness is your weakness!” then writing it on the blackboard before every practice. He amused some and annoyed others.  The moniker would fit better than a series of names from ‘Bubba’ to ‘Little Monk’, as Payton biographer Jeff Pearlman would account in the aptly titled book, Sweetness.

"Never die easy."

“After a lifetime of imperfect monikers that never quite worked, here was one that fit perfectly. The smiley, goofy, soft-spoken Payton was a sweet person. The cutting, dashing, swiveling Payton was a sweet runner.” Regardless of the fun and games, this wasn’t the mighty Bears of old — even worse than we know them in the present day. For all intents and purposes, the Chicago Bears were a dumpster fire in the ‘70s, a laughingstock that was a shell of its former self. Pearlman added that the Bears would go from a team whose history was “the early history of the game itself”, to “a forgettable second-tier club.”


Payton was drafted precisely to fix that. His first game, however, would be a disaster as the Bears had no offensive line, no leadership, nor any care from the team to fix it. With eight carries, Payton would log zero yards in his first game, which would result in a brushfire by the Chicago media. His early seasons would largely mimic that of the Bears—forgettable, with a conveyor belt of coaches that were more concerned about their drinking than winning.


Nonetheless, players, such as linebacker Larry Ely, began to notice the sheer talent and work ethic that Payton would show in each practice, starting with his athleticism. “When he got tackled, four…five…six people would have his legs, his neck, his arms, and he’d bounce back like a rubber ball to the huddle. How in the world did his ligaments and muscles take the pounding and bounce right back? You looked at him and wondered how any human being could be blessed with such a body.” This drive would fit right into his playing ethos: “Never die easy.”

Like Columbia High, the Bears were also bitterly divided between the races. Payton would intervene in his usual jokester way, sometimes to the chagrin of his teammates. Rookie quarterback Bob Avellini would note that Payton was a “nice guy, without a doubt, but childish. We’d be working out in shorts and he’d pull your shorts down. Maybe it’s funny the first time. By the fifth time, it’s not.” This childishness would become a prevalent theme within his life, as his hidden insecurities would continually resurface, such as his constant need for approval. Avellini recalled a game where Payton’s backup would log in a “forty-yard gain, and everyone was clapping. But Walter was pissed. He turned to me and said, ‘Those are my yards.’”


Having once chased and broken Jim Brown’s iconic rushing record, sometimes the Bears could not count on Payton when needing to stop the clock. Instead of running out of bounds he would simply keep pounding to pad his own stats. He “could be selfish in some very ugly ways,” recalled another team member. This selfishness would hark to his famous outburst in Super Bowl XX, where he felt he was snubbed a touchdown, despite a handful of players, including the giant teddy bear in William “Refrigerator” Perry, who logged arguably the most memorable score during that game. On one end, it would make sense that Payton, who literally battered his body and carried the franchise for eleven years till that point, would seek the validation of a Super Bowl touchdown. However, on the other end, as Bears coach, Mike Ditka would reassert: “I can understand [the whining] if you play golf or tennis or billiards. You’re one-on-one with the world. But we’re a forty-nine-man sport.”


Payton indeed was a phenomenal runner, with a certain fire that could seldom be extinguished. But what he was running from, still continues to puzzle the football community. There always seemed to be a void that he could not fill, not even his twenty-three year marriage to Connie Norwood could bring a semblance of balance. While the running back never partook in drugs or heavy drinking, his drug of choice was fast cars, shopping, hunting, and fame. Contrary to public opinion, Payton, too, succumbed to a vice that taints many star athletes—adultery—as he’d meet a young woman by the name of Angelina Smythe at a 1984 auto show.

"Payton was the clichéd celebrity—surrounded by admirers, yet alone."

He’d regularly call her to fill the emptiness of his marriage, that was far past a physical lust, but an emotional hunger too. For his marriage with Connie was strictly “mechanical” in that he certainly provided all that his wife and kids needed, but would spend the majority of his off-time elsewhere. Payton ended up impregnating Smythe, who he’d in-turn cut off in secrecy by signing a $50,000 trust along with child support. Despite constantly showing love to his two kids, Jarrett and Brittney, Nigel was not so lucky.


It was evident to his small circle of true friends, that Payton suffered from severe depression, that on occasion could have easily ended in suicide. Despite the numerous fans that donned his famous 34 jersey, or the acclaim from his peers, no one really knew Walter Payton, the man. Not even his wife, who upon the death of her husband, refused to believe the truth of Nigel Smythe. Connie had a fixed narrative of the entire marriage, where she always believed that Walter was a devout Christian—which he once was—but the emptiness that came with his fame—tainted that reality. Friends would urge Payton to seek therapy, in which he’d play off—heroes didn’t need therapy. It’s a tragic tale to a genuinely good man who did a great deal for his fans and community. Make no mistake, Walter Payton was a great player and a great man, one that was constantly giving back to the community, by supporting children’s literacy programs and would further help these groups through the Walter Payton Foundation. But often times, even the greatest of men fall to unfortunate mistakes.


Toward the later years of Payton’s life, he sought to instill lessons within his kids that may combat the corruption that comes with money and fame. Especially with Jarret, who he’d have working summers at Payton Power, where Jarrett would tirelessly toil away for minimum wage. Walter wanted his son to learn the merits of hard work, much like he learned growing up in Mississippi. Even with race, Payton took the high road. The most prominent incident being his father’s tragic death in 1979, where Edward Payton was wrongfully arrested by police under the suspicion of driving under the influence, thrown into jail and died a few hours later due to a rare aneurism. Walter was understandably called on by civil rights leaders to hold the white officers accountable, but he would steer the other way.

Tragically himself, Walter Payton passed away on November 1, 1999 due to a rare liver disease that stunned the world. Like a fallen hero, he now lives through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which seeks to help underprivileged communities along with providing awareness for organ donations. Despite being deeply depressed himself, Payton never shuttered to show adoration to his fans and critics — embracing them in moments that he understood could have a lifetime of difference. In more subtle ways, he also stood up for civil rights, by helping integrate his high school and pro teams.


Like all imperfect idols — from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, Tupac to Amy Winehouse—we will never truly know Walter, as his legend has been suspended in time, never to see the light of redemption. So every year when we witness the new Walter Payton “Man of the Year”, let’s remember the little we did know — the good, the bad and the ugly — and remember none of us are perfect, and if we have another day, how can we change that for the better?


(01) Art by Billy Kheel

(02) by NFL

(03) by Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

(04) by Ed Wagner/Chicago Tribune

(05) by CBS Chicago

The Legend of Pinto Ron

Buffalo Bills
Pinto Ron

Every city likes to claim it has the best fans in the world. It’s almost strange to find a club that doesn’t market itself in this way. Buffalo, I’d argue, is an exception. There has to be something in the air, in the wings, something, that sets their fans apart from all else in the NFL. Bills fans are as passionate as they come—despite having never won a championship. Not to mention, having gone to the Super Bowl four consecutive years….and losing all four. Ponder that for a second…imagine your team going to the big dance four straight years and losing each one. Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s perhaps the only streak of its kind in all of sports, one that would break even the most loyal of fans.

Despite this all, the Bills Mafia, as they like to call themselves nowadays, persevere and support their team as if they were defending champions every year. To understand this fervor, I sought to find a true Bills die-hard who could properly unearth the roots of this passion. Enter Ken Johnson, an almost mythic tailgater who has experienced this history every stretch of the way. Known the country over as “Pinto Ron,” an accidental name given to him in a 2000 interview, Johnson hasn’t missed a game in person since 1994, or as he says, “in real time—radio, TV, internet or person—since 1982.” He adds that he’s been to the “the last 423 consecutive Bills games no matter where they are.” Attending the last 423 consecutive of anything would be an impressive feat, let alone a pro football game.


Johnson isn’t alone—the Bills have a strong fanbase all across the country, one that’s willing to back their team anywhere in the tens of thousands. The reasons for this lie in the city’s booming past. “Buffalo used to be a big city. Now it’s a small city, because Buffalo was a steel city. It was complete steel, up until about the ’70s. 50% of all the residents worked at the steel mill, or businesses that supported the steel mills.” The steel industry slowly disappeared after the ‘70s, which caused many of its residents to migrate to growing cities like Houston, Charlotte and Dallas.

“When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”

“You know, they may have left Buffalo, but they didn’t leave Buffalo behind. So they continue to be Bills fans—I’m talking rabid Bills fans.” There really isn’t an away game for a team like the Bills, not when you can pack a stadium with over 25,000 of your own fans, like they did in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans in 2019.


People change cities all the time, so what makes rooting for the Bills so special? Johnson claims that part of the loyalty has to do with the general mentality of the Northeast Corridor. A hardened spirit that’s present in cities from Buffalo and Cleveland, to Philadelphia and Boston. “During winter, we spend a lot of times in our houses. When you’re in your house, what’s the focus of your attention? Generally, the TV. So people just gravitate towards their sports teams to break up the monotony of winter. You just make the habit of it and become a fanatic.” Now you need to understand that it doesn’t just snow up there, it snows a hell of a lot—almost half the year. It’s just one the many elements that contributes to the persevering attitude ingrained in its current and former residents. An attitude that former Bills head coach, Mark Levy would proudly tell his team, “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”


Just like Buffalo’s steel-working past, the Bills were once booming in the days of coach Levy, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and that high-octane no huddle offense known as the “K-Gun.” Well, booming, at least up until the Super Bowl. Jokes aside, the Bills won a record 101 times in the ‘90s, the most of any team in that decade, and that’s definitely something to be proud of, considering the great teams that included Jimmie Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys, George Seifert’s San Francisco 49ers and Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos.

As a veteran tailgater, Johnson and his crew have been “up to shenanigans” as he says, since 1985. Sed-shenanigans include using a toilet bowl as a beer cooler; pots, pans, hub caps—anything really—to grill on the hood of his Ford Pinto, a once-family car turned into a dedicated tailgating whip. Other customs include getting doused in ketchup and mustard before games to offering anyone brave enough to take a shot of 100 proof cherry liquor out of a bowling ball. A lot of people want in on that shot, in 2019 alone, he went through 145 of those bottles. All of these bizarre traditions developed organically and serve as a precursor to the table-slamming frenzy of today’s Bills tailgating.“There was a couple of kids, who actually just got out of law school (to tell you the truth), who wanted to figure a way to get on Deadspin. So they did the table crashing and made it on the site and kept doing it with different outfits, and switching people, so it seemed like different people doing it.” Couple the viral movement of the Bills Mafia and the fans have made it known that they are the show, not the players, not the results.


When asked what his favorite moment was, Johnson amusingly remembers the 1991 AFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Raiders. The Bills were up 42-3 at halftime “and you’re sitting there in the stands, with an entire half of football left to play, knowing that the Bills are going to the Super Bowl. That whole second half was just a giant party inside the stadium. No one cared about the game anymore.” Fast-forward to the present and head coach Sean McDermott has a young motivated Bills squad looking to those teams of the ‘90s to combat decades of disappointment. However, speaking with Johnson and you really just forget about the anxious chase of winning a title. If titles are the cherry on top, it paints an interesting picture on how much players and fans forget about all the good stuff beneath. Memories and experience are what championships are all about and they aren’t just formed in one game or one season, the Buffalo Bills are perhaps the best fanbase in the league to teach you that.


This article featured as part of the series, SUPERFANS, in SPIRAL Issue I.


(01) Images Courtesy of Pinto Ron

Trading Tribes

Los Angeles Rams
Philadelphia Eagles

I became an Eagles fan on October 5th, 1992, when Philadelphia hosted the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. I stopped being a fan on October 19th, 2015, when the Eagles hosted the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. The story of my fan journey is filled with football highs and lows, love and hate, heroes and heartache, Ja Rule getting booed, the failed “Dream Team”, and ultimately, I’m left still searching for a Super Bowl to call my own. The upside though, is that I didn’t eat horse sh*t. I’ll explain that later…


Days before my 11th birthday, I fell in love with Randall Cunningham. The Eagles were 5-0 and Randall was back. A lot of people today forget that he only played one game in 1991, due to a devastating injury in the first game of the season. In ’92, he would go on to win Comeback Player of The Year, and I remember staying up late on a school night early in the season and being transfixed—‘Who was this dude?’ He was THE MAN, that’s who.  He scored the first touchdown of the game, rocking the clean all white uniforms, running all over the Cowboys…and who doesn’t love to watch Dallas get their ass kicked on national television? I was all in. Fly Eagles Fly. Randall was my guy…

None of this would be surprising except for the fact that I grew up in the heart of New York City. The Giants were fresh off of two Super Bowl victories in the last five years at the time, and my Dad is as “Old School” a Giants fan as there can be. To this day, he’ll tell stories of training with the team when he was in high school, back when they practiced at The Polo Grounds. His father, famed New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons, arranged for my Dad to kick field goals with Pat Summeral. To his credit, my Dad was a great kicker, never missing an extra point in high school and playing D-1 at The University of Pennsylvania. Years later, when we watched Scott Norwood miss a field goal for the Buffalo Bills at the end of Super Bowl XXV, I remember knowing in my heart that my Dad would have drilled it. What a great feeling for a kid to have. “Never soccer-style, always straight ahead!”—his kicking words to live by. That’s one of my first sports memories, and despite the deep family and geographical connections, I never could bring myself to rooting for the Giants.


In fact, it’s BECAUSE of my father, that I adopted a hated out-of-town rival as my own when I started rooting for the Birds in ’92. My Dad, the consummate New Yorker, happens to be one of the biggest Boston Red Sox fans on planet Earth. He quotes a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal when trying to explain his allegiance to the Red Sox, being that he’s lived his entire life in Manhattan.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

- Blaise Pascal

My Dad left my high school graduation early to see Pedro pitch in the Bronx and he wears his Sox cap with pride as he takes the D-train up to Yankee Stadium when Boston is in town, despite the entire subway cars chanting, “Lyons Sucks! Lyons Sucks!” on sight. I’m not original when I say that my Dad is my sports hero, so rooting for the out-of-town team was something I aspired to, like a badge of honor.


As I began to fall in love with the game, despite never formally playing it like he did, I was afforded some outstanding football and memorable moments over the years as a fan because I rooted for the E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles! Once the Cowboys dynasty of the 90’s came to an end, the Birds were seemingly in it every year, thanks to star players like Randall, a lot of guys named Brian—like Dawkins, Westbrook, and Mitchell—and of course, Donovan and T.O. There was “4th and 26” and Vick on Monday Night. There were NFC East titles and primetime wins. But looking back, there was always an air of darkness and sadness around my love of the Eagles, and not just because they couldn’t win it all. Before games were readily available on mobile and the Sunday Ticket, I remember sitting in many a sports bar alone, rocking my lime green Ricky Watters jersey amidst evil stares from New Yorkers and Cowboys fans as I sat in the corner watching a random Eagles vs. Jaguars game. Cowboys fans are everywhere.


I spent $400 I didn’t have in 2003 for upper deck seats for the last game at Veteran’s Stadium. The 700 section, Bucs vs. Eagles for the NFC Championship. It was grey and cold and I wore five layers and was still frozen. I drank nine beers and after Brian Mitchell almost ran back a kick to start the game, the Birds shat the bed in one of the most crushing losses in franchise history. Joe Jurevicius scored two touchdowns and Ronde Barber had a big pick late. Ja Rule performed at half time and got booed. It was awful. I think there’s footage of Warren Sapp rocking a Ron Jaworski jersey or something walking off the flight back to Tampa. I was too hungover to remember. Glad there’s no footage of that.

When the Eagles did finally win an NFC title game to go to a Super Bowl after losing 3 in a row, they were matched up with the New England Patriots. Tom Fuck*ng Brady. We knew how this movie was going to end, but watched T.O. try and save the day anyway.  I was living with my friends from high school in our first apartment out of college—an abandoned jeans factory beneath a brothel in Koreatown. They had always tolerated my Eagles fandom, but never really understood it or supported it. Watching Donovan struggle to play hurry-up in the 4th when the Birds were down late was agonizing, and I remember them not really knowing what to say. What a sh*tty and forgettable night.


Another 10 years went by, including a move to Los Angeles, where I originally stuck with them, and would wake up early to catch the 10am kickoff for Eagles games. I traveled up to the old Candlestick Park with my friend Mustafa, a die hard Eagles fan, to see them destroy the 49ers once. That was fun, I guess. Then there was that a**hole Riley Cooper. F*ck Riley Cooper. I remember watching the Birds lose to the Cardinals in another NFC title game they should have won, while sitting next to Jamie Kennedy and Ron Jeremy in a media lounge at Sundance. Again, being an Eagles fan was always depressing for all those years, despite the team’s success.


Once I started dating Mariah, who I would eventually marry, I started to really question this part of my life. My relationship, not with Mariah, that was easy, but with football, and specifically, being an Eagles fan. I was embarrassed in front of her when I would explain to people my loyalty to the Eagles. The energy was too heavy, and she could tell this wasn’t who I really was. So could I. The partners we choose in life have a way of doing that for us, they help us become who we are meant to be. Eagles fans pride themselves on a sense of lawlessness that just doesn’t speak to who I was at this stage of my life. It was the fall of 2014. What was I still chasing or trying to prove?

The Birds would go on to win 10 games that season, yet still not make the playoffs. Chip Kelly was giving out smoothies in practice, and that was supposed to be the difference. The next year was no better, and it was during that forgettable campaign, that I was officially done with this part of my life. Being an Eagles fan became a dark cloud over my soul, and it all came to a head one fateful night in Philly at ‘The Linc’.


I went to a Monday Night game vs. the Giants with some co-workers from The Players’ Tribune. We took the train from the city and then a cab from the station in Philly, already a terrible few hours, and when we arrived in the parking lot of the stadium, I could have sworn we were on the set of ‘Mad Max.’ Trash cans were on fire. People were smashing glass on the ground for no reason. It was horrifying. During the game, I saw a woman throw a beer in another woman’s face, despite both rooting for the home team. The crab fries don’t even have crab and everybody is angry, even when the Eagles are winning.


An hour looking for the car service in the parking lot after, plus another hour in traffic before the two hours back into the city made for another terrible experience pledging my allegiance to a team I no longer cared about.


I was done.

When I went back to LA, the news broke that the Rams were finally going to be returning to California after a generation in St. Louis. This was my out. I could be free! I didn’t care that all the suffering, all the playoff losses and blown NFC title games and failed expectations had left me with nothing. I didn’t care, because I didn’t see it that way. I saw it that I now had everything. I had a team coming to the city where I lived, broadcasting it’s games on the radio station where I worked. They had the #1 pick in the draft, and as fate would have it, the Eagles had pick #2. It was destiny. They had Todd Gurley too and that guy was pretty sweet. This was my moment to bounce…and I did.


I remember driving to the beach in early August. It was a surprisingly cool evening for that time of year, and I brought nothing but a blanket and my Eagles bucket hat. I set up my place on the sand and I sat in silence. I don’t know if it was for an hour or 10 minutes, but I cleared the heavy and dark energy, breathed deep into my existence as a man, fought the evil forces that had captured my football soul, and blacked out.


The courthouse and jail cell in the basement of the old stadium. Reggie White leaving for Green Bay. The antics of DeShaun Jackson. All of this was released. I wept. As I dove into the ocean and submerged myself beneath the water, I knew that when I would reach the surface again, grasping for breath, I would be entering a new world, with clarity and hope. I was no longer an Eagles fan. It was a new chapter in my life…

It was the perfect time too for the Football Gods to orchestrate this shift in the cosmos as the first play in the first pre-season game vs. the still hated Dallas Cowboys, was a kickoff return to the house from ‘Lucky Whitehead.’ How “unlucky” is that?!?!


But I got in at rock bottom, which reaffirmed my lifestyle change, and it felt good that there was nowhere to go but up. I’m happy they went 4-12 the year after Jeff Fisher said on Hard Knocks that he wasn’t trying to go 8-8. Once they brought in McVay, it was party time and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since. Except, I couldn’t have a clean break—no that would have been too easy. I was tempted to see if my new love is true by an improbable Super Bowl run for the Birds only 2 years into my new life as a Rams fan. This was a test from a higher power.

So many people texted me, congratulating me, not knowing of my ceremony at the beach and rebirth at sea. It was a challenge. I even bet the Patriots so there would be no doubt as to where my heart lied. (Tom F*ck*ing Brady crushes me even when I bet on him.) I felt like Hulk Hogan going to the WCW and the NWO. Was there a part of me, that when the Birds ran onto the field to Meek Mill’s “Intro”, that I felt maybe I made the wrong move? I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t. But then after the game, when I saw on my timeline an Eagles fan eat horse sh*t in Philly during the celebrations in the street that I knew in my heart once again, that these were not my people. Just google, “Eagles Super Bowl Horse Sh*t” and see what comes up. If the Rams win a Super Bowl one day, I know I’ll be happy, but I also know that I won’t eat poop.


In some ways I’m even glad the Rams lost the Super Bowl two years ago (again, Tom Fuck*ng Brady) because it’s building character with the fan base out here. Jared Goff wants it more now. If they had just shown up back in town and won a Super Bowl before even moving into the new stadium, I think Angelenos would have taken it for granted. Now Rams fans are settling in for the long haul, and thanks to my friends like Dr. Klapper, I’ve gotten to go to a few games and experience what football is like in LA. It’s the ultimate unifier in a city that is often divided and spread apart for so many reasons. Going to a Rams game is like visiting the “United Nations of LA”, as all walks of life come together to celebrate the city and root for the Rams…and hate on the Chargers. Why they left San Diego I’ll never understand…


I’m proud of the years I put in as an Eagles fan and hold near and dear the relationships and friendships and memories made. Richie B, Miles T, Mr. Best, Camper Z, Segal, and all the other Philly faithful that toughed it out—you have my respect and admiration. It’s a life I’m not cut out for and no longer a part of. And that’s ok. Because now it’s Rams all day…and Jalen Ramsey is the man and those new uni’s are fresh, so we’ll see you at SoFi. Bring it…


(01) by NFL

(02) by AP

(03) by Los Angeles Rams

(04) by Los Angeles Rams

(05) Courtesy of Ben Lyons