Angela Torma isn't from Chicago, and she didn't quite know what to expect when she and NFL Films co-producer Steve Lucatuorto were tasked to capture the life of late Bears running back Walter Payton.
But when she headed to Chicago for the Payton family's annual "Sweetness Run," Torma quickly realized how much of an impact he had on his countless fans, including one who travels annually from California.
"Just the turnout, 10 years after he died," Torma said, when asked what stood out to her the most. "Just to see how many people still love this man.
"Not being from Chicago, it's really surprising but to see it firsthand was amazing."
Tonight, the NFL Network will air "Walter Payton: A Football Life," a 46-minute documentary.
It's beautifully done, featuring a number of memorable interviews, from Ashton Kutcher to Ray Lewis to Jim Brown and his wife, Connie, and their two children, Brittany and Jarrett. There are jaw-dropping highlight runs, and there are tear-inducing snippets, like Jarrett hugging his father, after he breaks down during his press conference to announce to the world that he had a rare liver disease in February 1999.
Torma and Lucatuorto didn't paint him as perfect, addressing his disappointment of not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl and alluding to his post-career challenges, whether with his family or his health.
But it's hard not to notice the timing, since former Sports Illustrated senior writer Jeff Pearlman recently released "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." The 400-plus page book documents Payton's entire life. But his lows were highlighted in an excerpt published in Sports Illustrated before the book's release, detailing Payton's abuse of pain medication and contemplation of suicide.
In June, when they started researching Payton, NFL Films didn't know anything, except that Pearlman was writing a book.
Torma said they interviewed Pearlman, just as they interviewed another Payton biographer, Don Yaeger.
"We came away from the interview from Jeff saying, 'We got a lot of good stories and good information,' " Torma said.
And while Pearlman's book delves into darker issues, Torma said there's plenty of interest in Payton, regardless.
"They're kind of different, and there are directions [Pearlman] went in that we didn't," Torma said. "But we're happy with the outcome of our show."
Torma said her favorite part was toward the end, when Payton's family rallied around him.
In a touching moment, Connie talks about a conversation she had with a bed-ridden Walter as he approached death.
"Something just hit me, that he's really tired of this struggle," Connie said. "He was staying because he knew we [the family] didn't want him to go.
"I told him that morning before he died, 'That it was OK.' If he was ready, it was OK to go."
Just then, Connie said, Walter opened his eyes for the first time in more than a month.
Walter Payton died the next morning.
This special may make you cry, but you'll also laugh, smile and marvel at his remarkable runs, the impact he had on people he'd never even met.
LaDainian Tomlinson, for instance, built a hill in his backyard, to replicate the one Payton famously trained on. And Tomlinson said he's never prayed for anyone as much as he did when Payton announced he was liver disease.
"Walter Payton: A Football Life" airs tonight on the NFL Network at 9 p.m. CST.
Here is a trailer.