Who: Walter’s fullback and closest friend on the Bears
Breakdown: In 1975 the Chicago Bears used the fourth pick of the NFL Draft to select Walter Payton. In 1975 the Chicago Bears used the 420th pick of the NFL Draft to select Roland Harper.
Both emerged as stars.
Harper, a powerful fullback out of Louisiana Tech, was Payton’s type of guy: Humble, soft-spoken, aware of what it was to be black and raised in the deep South in the 1950s and 60s. The two became inseparable on and off the field—Harper leading Payton through holes while pummeling opposing linebackers and defensive backs.
Why, following the 1975 season Harper—not Payton—was named the team’s top rookie.
Pearlman’s take: Harper was Payton without the talent. In other words, both men with incredibly determined and unafraid of hard work. Harper was the perfect compliment to Payton in the locker room, too. When Payton would irk others with his crass humor or occasional oddball antics, Harper would explain away his pal’s mannerisms.
Harper’s career was cut short by injury, but he and Matt Suhey were, without question, Payton’s two best friends in football.
From Sweetness: It was around this time— at his lowest point— that Payton needed a friend to confide in. He found one in Roland Harper. In the 1975 NFL Draft, teams selected a total of 442 players over seventeen rounds. Harper, an obscure fullback out of Louisiana Tech, was picked 420th— and only because Chicago had accidentally noticed him while scouting Charles McDaniel, the Bulldogs’ star halfback. “Walter never felt he had to prove himself to the world,” said Harper, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana. “But I did. I felt in my heart that I would play in the NFL, and that my blocking was good enough to take on any level of player.”
Throughout training camp, Bears players and coaches went about the tasks at hand when— SMACK!—the unmistakable sound of pulverization caught their attention. “That was Roland doing his thing,” said Tom Donchez, a reserve running back. “When he hit people, it stung.” Payton and Harper shared myriad commonalities. Both were Southern blacks who took part in the integration of a high school (Harper’s senior class at Captain Shreve High in Shreveport, Louisiana, was the fi rst to include whites and blacks).
Both were driven to succeed and unwilling to accept failure. Both were raised by warm mothers and hard- driven fathers (Harper’s dad, Eural, installed floors for banks and hospitals). Both played in the backfield. Both kept Bibles in their lockers and attended the team’s weekly prayer meetings.
Unlike Payton, however, Harper was universally beloved. He was talkative without being annoying and insightful without being arrogant. Teammates referred to him as “Preacher.” The kid possessed an air of wisdom.
Before long the two backs were inseparable. They talked at length about God and about race and about football. Once, in an attempt to prank Fred O’Connor, the running backs coach, they swapped jerseys and showed up at a frigid practice wearing wool ski masks. The jig lasted for ten minutes, until O’Connor turned to Harper and said, “You might be wearing number thirty-four, but you’re not Walter Payton.”