Matt Suhey Was More Than Walter Payton's Teammate

When I first heard the Bears were drafting Matt Suhey in the second round of the 1980 draft my first impression was what are they thinking? Sure he was great at Penn State but a blocking back he was not. After all, I surmised, we have Walter Payton. We have the quintessential compliment to Payton in fullback Roland Harper. And Harper and Payton are best friends.

What I'd forgotten or at least failed to fully understand was the fact that Bo Harper was coming off a severe knee injury from 1979 and was not guaranteed to even play again. And Suhey came from football royalty at P.S.U. His grandfather was Bob Higgins, an All-American in 1919. Higgins went on to coach the Nittany Lions from 1930 through 1948.

Matt's father Steve was an All-American guard who is in the college football Hall of Fame. Two of Matt's brother's also played at the school. In fact they have nearly 100 years of family tradition at Penn State University. So in retrospect, the Bears made a great decision.

Of course when Suhey got to camp he was a typical rookie in most respects, especially when it came to his backfield teammates. Most Bears fans don't realize that Matt was almost shunned by Walter that first year.

During that first training camp Walter even started calling him that "short, white, boy." This even though Suhey was actually the taller of the two men at 5'11". It was obvious Payton didn't appreciate someone vying for Harper's spot on the Bears.

But Suhey was very eager to learn and when Payton noticed how helpful Harper was being to that learning process he had no choice but to be more inclusive toward Matt. It soon became clear that Matt Suhey would be the Chicago Bears fullback.

After that the two developed an easy on field chemistry. Walter's wife Connie was once quoted as saying: " It's like a husband and wife, where one knows what the other is thinking. It made their communication on the field easier and that was very important to Walter." After Harper had to retire Payton and Suhey began to develop a friendship off the field too.

The more time they spent together, the closer they became. Former teammate Dennis Gentry put it this way: " If you were in a room with the two of them and kept your eyes closed, you'd swear they were brothers. They even might disagree and argue but when all was said and done there were always hugs."

The Payton and Suhey led backfield of the Bears proceeded to lead the NFL in rushing for four straight years from 1983- '86. Of course I would be  remiss if I didn't mention the obvious; That Chicago's running back duo was instrumental in the playoff and Super Bowl victories following the 1985 season.  Matt even scored a touchdown on an eleven yard run in the Super Bowl. I'm sure it was his biggest highlight as a Bear.

After Payton retired Suhey held on for two more years before he too called it quits. On the surface his career stats don't seem all that impressive, and maybe they aren't. But his biggest and most important role happened years later.

 When Walter Payton became ill in 1998 and was subsequently diagnosed with inoperable liver disease, his fullback stepped up and once again led the way. It was Matt who took Walter to all of his appointments at the prestigious Mayo clinic. In fact, no one else was even allowed to go. Just Matt and Walter.

And in the final days of Walter's life Matt was always around, being there for the entire family. After Payton's untimely death Suhey was named executor of his will and the custodian of his image and likeness. A job he takes very seriously to this day. Again a quote from Connie Payton: " I honestly don't know what we would have done without him and I'm so thankful to have him in our lives."

I will end this post with a quote from Walter Payton's autobiography, entitled "Never Die Easy": " Our lives are linked and they will stay that way... I need him now more than ever. More than when we played together. He didn't fail me on the field and he hasn't failed me since. "

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