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Memory of ‘Sweetness’ never far from ’85 Bears

Walter Payton would have had a lot of fun this week.

“I can visualize him pulling guys’ pants down,” Hall of Famer Mike Singletary said. “I can visualize him squirting water on guys, popping firecrackers.

“He is very much around.”

Singletary smiled. The Bears celebrated the 30th anniversary of Super Bowl XX with a party Tuesday night and gathered Wednesday for the premiere of ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary about the 1985 team.

The film chronicled the team’s highest moments and, later, their deepest tragedies, including defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s condition in the aftermath of cancer and a stroke; safety Dave Duerson’s 2011 suicide after experiencing brain trauma; and the great running back’s death, at age 45, of bile duct cancer.

“There was something that was just so elegant about Walter,” executive producer Vince Vaughn said.

Players still felt the presence of the one most synonymous with the 1985 team. Payton’s widow, Connie, helped contact former teammates to plan events, and his son Jarrett covered them for WGN News and CLTV.

It felt, he said, like a family reunion with dozens of uncles.

“I just wish he was around right about now, because I miss him,” Jarrett Payton said of his father, who retired after the 1987 season as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. “There’s so many guys that did great things on this team. …

“All those guys are like his brothers; they’d have so much fun with him around. Missing him is like missing part of the wheel.”

Payton’s eponymous NFL Man of the Year trophy keeps his memory alive, said former wide receiver Dennis McKinnon.

“Walter, we still talk about and we see everyday,” he said. “That’s the lasting impact that he’s had. But in a time when class and character meant something, that was Walter Payton. The league has changed dramatically since then.”

The Bears drafted Payton with the fourth pick 41 years ago Thursday. He was an established superstar for 10 years before the Super Bowl season, in which he gained 1,551 rushing yards on 324 carries.

The documentary detailed Payton’s frustration with not scoring in the blowout Super Bowl victory, believing he was a decoy. His son said fans mention Payton not scoring in the game “every day of my life.”

“Robert DeNiro still gets a lot of parts,” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Dan Hampton said. “Is he the same actor who did ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull? No. But he has a certain gravitas.

“Walter was in his 11th year when we won the Super Bowl. You know and I know that as a rule of thumb, running backs are done at 30. Was he the same player that ran for (a then-NFL record) 275 yards against the Vikings (in 1977)? Maybe not.

“But he was without question the heart and soul of the team.”

Former linebacker Jim Morrissey said Payton’s performance worked hand-in-hand Ryan’s dominant “46” defense.

“Every great defense has a ball control offense,” said Morrissey, who helped organize the party. “And the Bears controlled the clock that year better than anyone in the league. They held the clock, they moved the ball and the defense got them off the field.”

For all the characters on the 1985 team — coach Mike Ditka, William “Refrigerator” Perry, Gary “The Hit Man” Fencik and more — one stood out for fans, Hampton said.

He does still.

“The first thing they think about is the greatest running back of all time,” Hampton said. “Walter was the centerpiece.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Mark Potash contributed