‘Walter Payton was my hero’… Jerry Azumah opens up on his road to Chicago Bears superstardom

Growing up, Jerry Azumah couldn’t get enough of The Chicago Bears, watching in awe as the great Walter Payton rendered even the most talented of players helpless with his mesmerising skills.

Renowned for his remarkable ‘stutter-step’ and iconic ‘Never Die Easy’ motto, the legendary football star left a legacy that not only earned the respect of the pundits, but also inspired a generation of young athletes to pursue a career in the NFL, believing that through hard work and determination, they could reach the same dazzling heights as their hero had before them.

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Walter Payton inspired Jerry Azumah to play for The Chicago Bears

From the very first time he watched Payton effortlessly glide his way through an army of defenders like a hot knife through butter, Azumah knew exactly what he wanted to do — play football.

Through blood, sweat and tears, the gifted athlete proved his class, being drafted by The Chicago Bears back in 1999. And while many years have passed since his debut, Azumah can still remember thinking about his hero when he ran onto the playing field for the very first time.

In an exclusive interview with Sporf, he explained: “My biggest ever moment was running out of the tunnel for the first time as a Chicago Bear. I grew up being a Walter Payton fan, and that’s why I wanted to be a running back. He was the reason I wanted to play football. So, to don that C on the helmet and run out and see my parents in the crowd was crazy.

“I told them when I was younger, ‘I’m going to be a Chicago Bear, and I’m going to play football’. So, to see it happen, and look them in the eyes and witness their emotions was very special. Running out of the tunnel and having that lifetime moment fit into one freeze-frame, was amazing. That’s something I’ll always remember.”

Jerry Azumah attributes his success to the help of his father

As integral as Payton was to Azumah’s rise to the pinnacle of the sport, back at home, there was another man guiding the young prospect to success. And while the football player’s dad would’ve loved him to have pursued his own favourite sport, he did everything in his power to send his boy on the right path to achieving his dreams.

Azumah explained: “My father was definitely a guiding light. He’s an immigrant from Ghana, West Africa, so naturally, he wanted me to play soccer. He rolled me a soccer ball, and I picked it up and started running and hitting people. That was my first football practice.

“Getting to where I got to didn’t come easy. It came with a lot of sacrifice and patience, which my father was instrumental in. Back in high school, I didn’t really get to play until my senior year. That was a hard lesson learned because we were a good football team. They played the upperclassmen, so I had to sit on the bench and bide my time. I told my father at one point, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore because I’m not getting the shine I deserve’. He replied, ‘Be patient and confident in yourself; you know what you can do, and when your time comes, just be the best.

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Without his father, the Chicago Bears legend may never have scaled the mountain

The football star continued: “He was so right. When I got to the NFL, I thought I was going to be a running back, but I got drafted as a defensive back. It’s a position I’d never done before in my life, and now, I’m doing it at the highest level. The transition for that was extremely difficult. It got to a point where I didn’t trust what I was doing anymore. My father was instrumental in helping me. My dad told me they could’ve easily drafted a defensive back rather than me, and I’d won the Walter Payton Award, so I knew how to play football. He convinced me to believe in myself and seize the moment. He was very important in my upbringing in football and in life in general. He’s instilled a lot of good values in me.”

Jerry Azumah reflects on sizing up Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams at The Combine

In an astonishing career, the now-retired phenom appeared in 105 games with 48 starts. He accumulated 384 tackles, ten interceptions, 29 pass defences, six forced fumbles and one recovery.

However, his tremendous performances on the field may have never come to fruition, had he not put the hard yards in at The Combine with Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams.

Recounting his experience at the training facility, Azumah said: “It was great because I went to the University of New Hampshire, which was a smaller school. But we had a lot of football minds, and we had a lot of great football players who went on to play in the NFL as well. It was difficult because I knew that being at UNH, I’d have to put extra work in, but when I went to The Combine, we were all equal.

“I got to see Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams and size them up, and they sized me up. I performed at a high level and got drafted. The Combine was very special. There are not many people who get invited and even fewer who get drafted. The numbers are very slim. It’s not easy to make a football team at that level. But, I was able to get over the hurdle and conquer the difficulties and odds. I then made the transition from offence to defence. It was a lot of work, but the Combine was a great experience because I got to see exactly how I fit in with the guys, who are going to be big name football players at the next level.”

READ MORE: PHOEBE SCHECTER ON COACHING LESEAN MCCOY AT BUFFALO BILLS AND LAUNCHING MANCHESTER NFL GIRLS FLAG LEAGUE

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Jerry Azumah offered his words of wisdom to the next generation at the Jets vs Bears Championship Flag event

In addition to his commendable philanthropy work, the 46-year-old adores giving back to the next generation, recently flying to London, to cheer the Chicago Bears to victory in their NFL Girls Flag League Championship match against the New York Jets.

Like he did many moons ago, the 12-14-year-old girls are taking their first steps towards greatness, and Azumah couldn’t be happier.

He beamed: “These girls have been fantastic. It’s very interesting to see the game grow the way that it is. Flag football is coming to the Olympics, so for me to come over to England and see the girls competing at this level is tremendous. It gives them an opportunity to showcase their talent and play a sport they didn’t grow up playing. The world is catching up with flag football.”

Featured Image Credit: Jerry Azumah / Getty