Every year around this time I get excited for the NFL players who are getting their first shot at the Super Bowl. The young players, looking to make a name for themselves. The veterans, looking to make the most of what may be their last chance to do something special on the game’s biggest stage.
And when I think of veterans getting a shot at the Super Bowl, I cannot help but be reminded of one of the biggest travesties I’ve ever witnessed in the game: Coach Ditka handing the ball for a once-in-a-lifetime Super Bowl touchdown, to William “The Fridge” Perry instead of Walter “Sweetness” Payton in Super Bowl XX.
If you’ve never seen Walter Payton run the ball, there are no shortage of videos to be found online. NFL Films named him #5 of the Top 100 Players of All-Time. They also did a career highlight reel that is jaw dropping. Someone compiled all of his TDs into a single reel: that video is 32 minutes long.
Payton set the then-single-game rushing record at 275 yards – while suffering a 101 degree fever and the flu (a record that stood for 23 years). He earned the nickname “Sweetness”, but there was nothing soft about his running style. He would explode into would-be tacklers, often knocking them back and earning extra yards.
He was a maestro of the “Pop over the top” at the goal line for touchdowns, a viable receiver threat, and occasionally a passer as well. Payton helped turn around a losing franchise, and was must-see TV every time he touched the ball. It felt like Payton single-handedly carried the Bears for years, especially before Ditka took over. If Payton wasn’t keeping the Bears in contention for a playoff spot, he was keeping the seats filled with fans who would come just to watch him run the ball.
Then Ditka takes over, and within three years they make the playoffs; four, and they are in the Super Bowl. Ditka had his own way of doing things, he was a hard-headed, mean coach, and had other hard-headed, mean coaches working for him – like Buddy Ryan as his defensive coordinator.
Ryan and Ditka butted heads on their 1985 first-round draft pick William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Ryan thought Perry was “a wasted draft pick” and Ditka couldn’t care less. At one point, Ditka starts playing Perry at fullback on occasion, letting him either block for Payton or run it in himself when close to the opponent’s end zone.
And here is where I have the biggest beef: in Super Bowl XX, Ditka chose to give the ball to Perry TWICE down near the Patriot’s end zone. Once on a halfback option pass (a throw that Payton had made many times, whereas Perry was sacked). A second time on a straight run up the gut upon which Perry scored. I was watching that game in real-time: and I am still as pissed now as I was then. Perry may have been popular and novel, but Payton was one of the greatest to play the game. Payton deserved a shot at scoring a TD, and I am 100% certain he would have, given the chance.
I had a chance to meet Jim McMahon and I asked him about this. He said the Patriots were so keyed on Payton they would have shut down anything they did with him down near the end zone. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t buy it. Nothing could have been worse than the sack Perry took on that aborted halfback pass. And not giving Payton a shot at a TD in the biggest game in the sport is downright disrespectful. Payton’s list of accolades is ridiculously long, but the biggest thing missing is a TD in the Super Bowl – something his coach never gave him a chance to do.
What player do you think has been most short-changed in the Super Bowl?