Any conversation about the greatest NFL running backs will always include a handful of names such as Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Emmit Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Eric Dickerson. Both Walter Payton (with the NFL from 1975-87) and Jim Brown (with the NFL from 1957-65) had similar styles of running the football, both being described as “punishing”.
In Walter Payton’s Autobiography, “Never Die Easy”, Payton contributes this aggressive running attitude to his Jackson State University Coach Bob Hill, who’s motto was the same as the title of Payton’s autobiography, “Never die easy”, which refers to not running out of bounds but instead making contact with his tacklers. Rumors of Payton asking blockers to get out of his way so he can make contact with certain defenders abound.
Similarly, Jim Brown’s running style was summarized best by fellow NFL teammate John Mackey, who stated; “He told me, ‘Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.’ He lived by that philosophy and I always followed that advice.” Jim Brown, when interviewing Adrian Peterson, revealed that “If a defender wants to tackle me, I will make him pay for it and he’ll think twice next time.” Brown is also on record for stating his intentions of coming out of 17 year retirement to defend his records when Franco Harris flirted with, but ultimately was unable to break Brown’s all time rushing yards. Brown criticized Harris’ style for running out of bounds which was in stark contrast to Jim Brown’s, who fought for every yard available. Eventually, it was Payton, not Harris, who dethroned Jim Brown’s crown held for most rushing yards in an NFL career.
The similarities between the two NFL Hall of Famer’s does not stop with their particular rushing styles. Also interesting is that both backs were 9 time Pro Bowl Team Selections and 9 time All Pro selections. When both Brown and Payton retired, they held records for most all purpose NFL yards, most rushing touchdowns, and most rushing yards. Similarities between the two go beyond style and records. Both backs are considered extremely well rounded athletes. Brown has the pleasure of being in three different sports Hall of Fame’s (College Football, Lacrosse, & NFL) while Payton being a member of three also (College Football, Black College Football, and NFL). Brown was said to have excelled in not only football, but baseball, track, lacrosse, & basketball as well. Walter Payton was known to fill in at quarterback and punter when necessary, while both backs were known for their hands and ability to play as a receiver on the football field. Both backs also were sometimes used to kick extra points, and field goals.
There were also some glaring differences between these two NFL greats. Most notably is the amount of games and seasons played. While Jim Brown impressively made Pro Bowl appearances in every season played (9), Walter Payton was not invited to join the Pro Bowl team in 4 of his 13 seasons. Beyond Payton playing 4 more seasons than Brown, the majority of NFL seasons Payton played were 16 game seasons, while all 9 of Jim Brown’s were 12 game seasons. When looking at yards per game averages, Jim Brown still ranks first with 5.2 average rushing yards per carry and 104.3 average yards per game, while Payton averaged 4.4 average yards per carry and 88 average yards per game. Jim Brown was officially listed as a fullback while Walter Payton helped define the modern day running back. Although both backs liked to play physically against opponents, Jim Brown is listed at 6’2″ and 232 lbs while Payton at 5’10” and 200 lbs.
The “Sporting News” listed Brown as “The Greatest Football Player of All-Time”. Statistics back this claim up, with the only other player in the top ten running backs of all time list to be near Brown’s averages is Barry Sanders, who’s father was frequently noted as stating that “Jim Brown was the greatest player I’d ever seen”. Both Brown and Payton dominated the NFL during their time, broke all previous records set before them, and were extremely hard to be taken down, almost impossible to be tackled by one defender. Both backs faced 8 man fronts defensively, but still were able to dominate. During Walter Payton’s Super Bowl game, Jim McMahon stated that New England’s defense was consistently dedicating 2-3 people against Payton. Also impressive was both backs lack of injuries during their careers, with Brown missing zero games throughout his career while Payton missed only 1 during his rookie season.