NFL Players are often recognized for what they do on the field. When thinking about NFL players, fanatics often think about their stats, wins and losses records, and the players’ all-time best plays. When watching players on the field and through a screen, it’s easy to see a player as a one-dimensional person. We see them as an athlete and standout player, sometimes forgetting the importance of what they do off the field on their own time.
In 1970, the NFL Man of the Year Award set out to change that. It recognizes NFL players for their excellence off of the field. This award acknowledges players who make a difference in their communities and are devoted to philanthropy. Many believe the award is the most prestigious award a player can receive in the NFL. While what they do on the field is no small feat, the recipients of this award have made a noteworthy and commendable difference off the gridiron.
History of the Award
The award was originally established in 1970. It was known as the NFL Man of the Year Award at the time. It quickly became known as the most prestigious award in the NFL. In 1999, the award was renamed the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The award was named after the late Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton.
The legendary running back has a storied history of awards and recognition on the field. Payton was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. He attended Jackson State University in Mississippi. In 1996, Payton was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Payton was named to the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994 and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team in 2019. He retired from football in 1987.
In Payton’s honor, each season, every NFL team nominates one outstanding player who has made a significant impact in his community.
Walter Payton’s Legacy
In February 1999, Payton announced that he was diagnosed with a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis. Just a few months later in November 1999, Payton died from cholangiocarcinoma, also known as bile duct cancer, at the age of 46. In his last few months of life, Payton became a fierce advocate for organ donation.
Payton’s family founded the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. Their mission states, “Our mission is to take an active role in helping those less fortunate to find stability while providing positive opportunities needed to live their lives with dignity and pride.”
The foundation was originally started to bring awareness to the need for organ donation, and the organization is greatly credited with bringing national attention and awareness to organ donation. The foundation’s efforts led to the city of Chicago adding organ donation requests to city vehicle registration mailings. In just a few months, 13,000 people enrolled in the program.
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation now focuses on establishing programs that provide children and veterans with the opportunities and tools to live their lives with dignity and pride. In 2002, Payton’s family established the Walter Payton Cancer Fund to support efforts to treat and cure cancer.
Payton first received the NFL Man of the Year Award in 1977. In 1999, the NFL renamed the trophy the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The award was presented to his widow, Connie, in 1999. Former Chicago Bears head coach and NFL Hall of Fame player Mike Ditka shared that Payton was the greatest football player he had ever seen — but an even greater human being.
Fans may notice that the Walter Payton patch and trophy do not resemble Payton. The NFL Man of the Year trophy was originally created in 1969 by artist Daniel Bennett Schwartz. The trophy depicts a caped lineman and was originally modeled after a nondescript player. The statue depicts a player standing on the sideline, reinforcing that the award is not given out based on on-field performance.
In 2017, the NFL decided that whoever receives the patch will wear it on their jersey for the rest of their NFL career. Each team nominates a player who best represents the league’s commitment to positive community impact and philanthropy. The official recipient is selected by the NFL Foundation. The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner receives $250,000 donated to their charity of choice. All of the other 31 nominees receive up to $40,000 donated to their selected charity. The donations are provided by the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.
If fans notice the distinct patch of honor on players, it is because that player has previously received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Previous recipients are as follows:
- 2021: Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams.
- 2020: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks.
- 2019: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars.
- 2018: Chris Long, Philadelphia Eagles.
- 2017: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans.
- 2016: Eli Manning, New York Giants.
- 2016: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals.
- 2015: Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers.
- 2014: Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers.
- 2013: Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears.
- 2012: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys.
- 2011: Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens.
- 2010: Madieu Williams, Minnesota Vikings.
- 2009: Brian Waters, Kansas City Chiefs.
- 2008: Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals.
- 2007: Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins.
- 2006: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers.
- 2006: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints.
- 2005: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts.
- 2004: Warrick Dunn, Atlanta Falcons.
- 2003: Will Shields, Kansas City Chiefs.
- 2002: Troy Vincent, Philadelphia Eagles.
- 2001: Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh Steelers.
- 2000: Jim Flanigan, Chicago Bears.
- 2000: Derrick Brooks, Bay Buccaneers.
- 1999: Cris Carter, Minnesota Vikings.
- 1998: Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins.
- 1997: Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys.
- 1996: Darrell Green, Washington Redskins.
- 1995: Boomer Esiason, New York Jets.
- 1994: Junior Seau, San Diego Chargers.
- 1993: Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs.
- 1992: John Elway, Denver Broncos.
- 1991: Anthony Munoz, Cincinnati Bengals.
- 1990: Mike Singletary, Chicago Bears.
- 1989: Warren Moon, Houston Oilers.
- 1988: Steven Largent, Seattle Seahawks.
- 1987: Dave Duerson, Chicago Bears.
- 1986: Reggie Williams, Cincinnati Bengals.
- 1985: Dwight Stephenson, Miami Dolphins.
- 1984: Marty Lyons, New York Jets.
- 1983: Rolf Benirschke, San Diego Chargers.
- 1982: Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins.
- 1981: Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh Steelers.
- 1980: Harold Carmichael, Philadelphia Eagles.
- 1979: Joe Greene, Pittsburgh Steelers.
- 1978: Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys.
- 1977: Walter Payton, Chicago Bears.
- 1976: Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers.
- 1975: Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals.
- 1974: George Blanda, Oakland Raiders.
- 1973: Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs.
- 1972: Willie Lanier, Kansas City Chiefs.
- 1971: John Hadl, San Diego Chargers.
- 1970: Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts.
- 1969: Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers (“Gladiator Award”).
The most recent award recipient, Andrew Whitworth (video worth watching!), shared, “This award, though, has been about players who are great on the football field but live with their hearts off it. They made their time in the NFL about more than just the stats they put out on the field, but how they lived off of it. I’m humbled, I’m honored to stand up here and represent the outstanding class of 2021 nominees and all of the previous winners.”
The Los Angeles Rams starting offensive lineman and four-time Pro-Bowler was recognized for his Big Whit Homes for LA Families program. Whitworth launched the program at the beginning of the season and pledged to personally donate $20,000 after each Rams home game. He also made additional donations to repair homes in his home state of Louisiana. In August, when Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, Whitworth worked with Rebuilding Together to assist in providing essential home repairs to homes that were damaged during the hurricane.
Whitworth has helped families in Los Angeles facing housing insecurity move into affordable homes. He also works with non-profits in Los Angeles to support families in paying rent, purchasing groceries, and providing support for down payments and home furnishings. As the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year recipient, Whitworth received a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice.
Whitworth finished his award acceptance speech by imploring fellow players in the league to join him in making their communities better. He said, “So, keep investing, lead with your heart, and I can’t wait to watch the legacy continue. Remember this, it’s a blessing, not a burden, to carry on this NFL legacy.”