Column: As Tom Brady’s retirement party heads into overtime, we remember the graceful exit of Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton

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Column: As Tom Brady’s retirement party heads into overtime, we remember the graceful exit of Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton
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When the greatest of all time decided to call it quits, he didn’t want a syrupy ending.

Walter Payton said well before the 1987 season began that it would be his final year, and the Chicago Bears great didn’t feel the need to give a reason.

Why was this going to be his last year?

“‘Because I want it to be my last year,” he told Chicago Tribune reporter Don Pierson during the summer of ‘87.

At 33, Payton simply decided he had had enough. He loved the game, but knew it was time.

“This is something I want to do, something I love to do,” Payton said. “Money isn’t everything. Do you get married because of money? Do you have kids because of money? It’s like something you have to fulfill in your life.

‘’Some people want to be astronauts, some people want to go to the moon, some want to fly to Rome, some want to ride on the Orient Express. I’m not doing this because of records. You (media) guys focus in on the wrong things.

“It’s not money or records. I’m doing it because I enjoy doing it and I can do it.”

Payton was able to go out his own way, befitting the man he was. And though some of his records eventually were broken, no one who watched him play would have any doubts he was the greatest running back ever.

Now Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, the proverbial G.OA.T, is set to retire, and the tributes have been flowing since Saturday’s announcement by ESPN. Though the conference title games were on deck Sunday, the focus of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” all morning was on Brady — why he decided to call it quits now, why he will be remembered as the greatest ever, and how he went from a sixth-round draft pick to an NFL legend.

All deserved, of course. Some of Brady’s passing records will someday be broken, though seven Super Bowl titles is one that seems safe for years to come, if not forever. And no matter what your opinion of Brady, there is no debating his greatness.

But unlike Payton, Brady wasn’t able to announce his retirement on his own terms. The news was reported Saturday afternoon by ESPN before Brady’s agent, Don Yee, sent out a statement calling the report premature.

“Without getting into the accuracy or inaccuracy of what’s being reported, Tom will be the only person to express his plans with complete accuracy,” Yee’s statement said. “He knows the realities of the football business and planning calendar as well as anybody, so that should be soon.”

In other words, Brady is still going to retire.

But until the actual words come from his mouth, it’s not official. The Tom Brady retirement party is headed into overtime.

That meant Brady will be feted once again when he makes his official announcement, and we’ll all get hear everyone heap praise on him one more time. Maybe the career highlights packages will be rerun, or perhaps repackaged.

Either way, Brady’s Retirement will make way for Brady’s Retirement 2.0.

No surprise. Whenever prominent athletes walk away from the game it’s always newsworthy and everyone has their own style. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger let word leak out near the end of his final season this year and took a literal victory lap around Heinz Field after his final regular season home game. Former Cubs pitcher Jon Lester waited until the middle of the offseason to announce his retirement in an ESPN interview, eschewing the farewell tour by doing it in the dead of winter.

To each his own. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and it all depends on the athlete’s need for attention.

The perfect ending is to go out with a championship, like John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII or Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50. But those memorable finales are the exception to the rule. Few great athletes get to end things with an exclamation mark.

Brady’s final game was a divisional round playoff loss at home to the Los Angeles Rams, just as Payton’s swan song was a divisional round playoff loss to the Washington Redskins at Soldier Field.

No one went into that Bears-Redskins game focusing on whether it would be Payton’s final game because the Bears were expected to win and march on to the Super Bowl. Brady’s final game included speculation over his retirement because it was leaked over the weekend that he was contemplating doing so, and it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter.

Like Brady against the Rams, Payton went out with a great performance — 85 yards in 18 carries — but the excruciating Bears loss was the much bigger story of the day. The Bears led by 14 points before the Redskins rallied for a 21-17 win, and after the clock ran out, Payton lingered on the bench by himself in the freezing cold as disappointed Bears fans exited Soldier Field.

Payton had no prepared speech to give afterward.

“The last 13 years for me, there have been a lot of good moments, a lot of bad moments,” he told reporters. “There have been some times when you want to quit and times when you couldn’t see quit in sight. But overall it’s been a lot of fun.

“When you take away the fun it’s time to leave. That’s why it’s so hard for me to leave now. The fun is still there. The game of football has been very good to me. It doesn’t owe me a thing.”

Payton’s legacy remains intact 34 years later, even though he was eclipsed by Emmitt Smith as the all-time NFL leader in rushing yards. And he didn’t receive the same kind of media attention that’s been lavished upon Brady since the ESPN report.

But at least Payton was able to do it his way, and we can all be grateful for that.

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