While everyone seems to melt over the quarterback these days, there was a time when running backs ruled the NFL. While there have been many greats, there have been none like the great Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton.
Payton dominated the gridiron for 13 seasons, setting four NFL records before his retirement, including most rushing attempts all-time, most career yards rushing, most career rushing touchdowns, and most career all-purpose yards. He was truly a great.
What made Payton even more special was that he was a great man off the field as well. His charity work earned him acclaim, as he was honored as the NFL Man of the Year in 1977. Because of his incredible generosity and dedication to helping others, the name of the award was changed to honor the legend following his death in 1999.
Officially, the award is now named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
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How the Award Is Chosen
Like Walter Payton, all recipients must be actively involved in volunteer and charity work within their communities. They are not only expected to excel on the field, but off it as well.
During the season, each team in the NFL nominates a recipient from their team as a finalist for the award. There is a panel of judges that help to determine the winner. This includes the NFL Commissioner as well as former players who have received the award in the past.
The first NFL Man of the Year award was given to the great Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts in 1970. Quarterbacks dominated this award for five of the first six seasons. That is until Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris won the award in 1976 and Payton won the following year.
In 1999, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter became the first player to receive the award after it was named in honor of the former Chicago Bears great.
The following year, two players would be honored, making it the first time in the award’s history that this occurred as Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks and Chicago Bears defensive tackle Jim Flanigan were given the award. There have been two instances since that time where two players have received the award in the same year (2006, 2016).
While quarterbacks have most commonly received this award over the 49 years it has been awarded, defensive players have dominated of late. Four of the last seven recipients have come on the defensive side of the ball, including a pair of defensive ends in the last two seasons, with J. J. Watt of the Houston Texans winning the award in 2017 and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long winning last year.
What Recipients Receive
Since 2017, the winner of the award wears a special patch depicting a caped silhouette of Walter Payton that is sewn into their jersey the year following their receiving of the award. Originally, each winner received a $50,000 check to be donated in their name to the charity of their choice. Now that amount has been increased to $250,000 with an additional $250,000 donated in their name to the Character Playbook, the NFL and United Way’s digital character education program.
Those who were nominated also receive special recognition. Each of the other 31 finalists received a $5000 check to donate to the charity of their choice in their name, but that number increased to $50,000 in 2017. In addition, they receive a special decal that is worn on their helmet during the remainder of the season after being recognized as a nominee for the award.
When Is the Award Winner Named?
Those who are nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award are named in early December. It is at that time that all players nominated are eligible to wear the special decal on their helmet. The winner of the award is named during Super Bowl week.
Currently, there are six players still active on NFL rosters who have received the award in the past. The Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs hold the record for the most award winners with each of these teams having five who have received the award.