This is tough. This is pain. Walter Payton has been sitting in a chair for 10 minutes and he has to move. He doesn't want to—he has to.
He stands up. He paces. He had arthroscopic surgery on both knees four weeks earlier—20 minutes on the left, 40 on the right—but the knees don't hurt. Not with real pain, anyway. Not the way pro running backs know it. "He follows the code," says Jim Brown, whose NFL career rushing record of 12,312 yards Payton will soon pass; he needs another 687 yards. "The old gladiator code." Indeed, Payton played full-court basketball two days before the April 5 surgery, even though his knees were already damaged, had in fact been banged up since the third game last season. "He ran kind of stiff-legged all year," says Chicago Bear coach Mike Ditka, "and he ran for more than 1,400 yards. The doctor wondered how he did that on those knees."
No, for the 5'10½", 204-pound, 30-year-old running back who lists drums and privacy as two of his main interests, pain is being trapped like this, having to talk about yourself, getting probed, not pounding on something or somebody, not moving. Connie Payton, Walter's college sweetheart at Jackson State and wife of eight years, still watches in amazement whenever her husband pulls one of his several cars out of the family driveway in suburban Arlington Heights, drives around the block and then reparks the car where it was, "just to do something."
And Payton now is laid back compared with the way he was in the old days. After the 1976 season, Payton's second with the Bears, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Don Pierson visited him in Jackson, Miss., where Payton's family had recently moved from nearby Columbia. "It was the most frantic 11 hours I've ever spent," says Pierson.
September 4, 1984
Payton, who had a CB radio at the time, picked Pierson up at the airport. "His handle was Mississippi Maniac, and all I could think was thank God for his reflexes, because we were going 60 and all over the road," says Pierson. "It was hot as blazes and he had the radio on and he sang while we talked. When we got to his house, he turned on the stereo and the TV and started folding laundry. Then he went into his den and started playing his drums to the stereo, and I remember he said, 'This is like doing 70 push-ups.' After that, he and five buddies ran up and down the banks of the Pearl River till they were exhausted, after which we drove to a brewery for beer. When we got back to his house, Walter got a hose and started watering his lawn."
After that, Payton went indoors and simultaneously played chess with a friend and watched TV. "He was standing up, slapping his thighs, saying, 'Move, move, move! I can't stand it when you play slow,' " says Pierson. Payton then dragged the writer off to shop for stereo equipment before heading to a driving range to hit golf balls. The two met Connie, ate dinner in 15 minutes, and Payton drove Pierson to the airport to catch his plane. In the concourse, Payton acted as though he were holding a bowling ball, then began making motions as though he were rolling the ball. "I'll never forget that," says Pierson. "He'd done almost every sport that day, and now he was bowling down the hallway."
"Yeah, I sleep," says Payton now. His voice, soft and high as a little boy's, could pass for Michael Jackson's. He even looks like the singer, if one can imagine Jackson with an extra 75 pounds of muscle. "You think I don't sleep? You think this is 24 hours nonstop?"
It certainly seems that way. Payton walks back and forth in his office at Studebaker's, a trendy nightspot he owns in a suburban Chicago shopping center. Clad in jeans and T shirt, he holds a football in his right hand. Periodically, he smacks the ball hard with his left hand, and the walls ring with the sound.
In the back room, his secretary, Tracey Nguyen, answers calls and tries to make sense of Payton's off-season schedule, a jumble of business meetings, workouts, charity functions, hunting and fishing trips, excursions to look at cars, and a myriad of other things a kid with a lot of money might be expected to do. Connie Payton insisted Walter get a secretary 10 months ago. Payton is a corporation, a symbol, a sovereign entity like other sports millionaires, and his habit of breaking appointments and forgetting events unnerved his wife. Now Payton simply calls Nguyen every day, and she tells him what to do.
"I've just always been active," he says. "I was born that way, having to move." A beeper on his belt goes off, and he walks into another room and grabs a phone. The action temporarily soothes him.
Returning, Payton sits down and starts tapping on the ball, setting a rhythm. His mother, Alyne, says it was always thus. "He'd come through the house beating on anything he could put his hands on," she says. "All he did was drum. When he'd start early in the morning, it was hard on me."
When Payton wasn't pounding on his drums—he played them in the Columbia High band—he was dancing. While at Jackson State, where he majored in special education, he and a girl friend were finalists in a national Soul Train TV dance contest. Even now, Payton says he won't hang on in pro football if he starts getting beaten up—"because I want to dance when I'm done." The dance beat that Payton hears is clearly a swift one—he even graduated from college in a hurry, in 3½ years, at age 20—and it may be the pulse of his athletic talent.
Former NFL running back Mike Adamle, now a Chicago TV sportscaster, played with Payton during the mid-'70s and was most impressed by his sense of timing when he ran. When Adamle began television work in 1977, one of his projects was a profile of Payton. "Walter had some congas, and I said to him, 'If you had to play the score behind your highlight film, what would it sound like?' " says Adamle. "He thought for a while, and then he played. We taped it and ran it underneath the film, and it matched. It was perfect. I mean, NFL Films couldn't have done better. Maybe it's nothing. But I think it could be like a sixth sense Walter has. I think it could be important."
Walter Payton earned his nickname, Sweetness, back at Jackson State, for his sweet moves. From the start it was a misnomer. He could fake and juke with the best, but what he really liked to do was run over people. "Toughness" would have fit better. Opponents accused him more than once of actually going out of his way, of avoiding the open field or maybe even slowing down, just to take another shot at a defender. Payton admits he has done that. "See, the thing about defensive players is that they want to hit you as hard as they can. They're obsessed with that," he says. "And a lot of times they do knock the crap out of you. My coach at Jackson State, Bob Hill, always said, 'If you're going to die anyway, die hard, never die easy.' So that's what I try to do."
Payton averaged more than six yards per carry in college. He also punted, kicked field goals and extra points, returned kicks and completed 14 of 19 passes, four for touchdowns. Altogether, he scored 464 points, the most in NCAA history. In his senior season, 1974, he probably should have won the Heisman Trophy, but because he was from a small all-black school, he never had a chance.
The Bears made Payton their first pick in the 1975 draft, the fourth player taken overall. He arrived in Chicago a shy, hyperactive, hardworking Southerner with no precise plans. His rookie season began slowly—he gained zero yards in his first eight carries and his first four pass receptions produced a loss of two yards. He finished with just 679 yards rushing and didn't make the All-Rookie team. But the next year Pay-ton exploded for 1,390 yards and was named the Sporting News NFC Player of the Year. Since then he has never gained fewer than 1,222 yards in a season—except in strike-shortened 1982 when he had only 596—and his career total of 11,625 rushing yards puts him just 325 behind Pittsburgh's Franco Harris and, as stated, 687 behind Brown. If he averages what he did last year—88.8 yards per game—Payton will pass Brown in the eighth game of the season, on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Harris is another matter. If Harris averages the 62.9 yards he did last year, he will catch Brown in the Steelers' sixth game of the year, at which point Payton will be about 170 yards back. Following a straight-line projection, Payton would then overtake Harris in about the third quarter of the 13th game of the season, and by the end of the year would be the NFL's alltime leading rusher by exactly 89 yards.
Of course, nothing is straight line in football. These aren't young men we're talking about here—at least not by football standards. Harris is 34 and in his 13th season; Payton is 30 and in his 10th. And for that matter, Brown, who retired in 1965 after nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, is 48. Still trim and fierce-looking at 6'2" and 235 pounds, Brown continues to say he'll make a comeback if he feels his record is treated with disrespect.
What's at stake here—despite claims from all sides that statistics can lie, that the game has changed, that nothing is absolute—is simply the title of Football's Greatest Running Back. The rushing record has become a hallowed thing, a feat akin to Ruth's 60 home runs, not Roger Maris's 61*. An immortal (though Brown lives and talks) set it. It isn't enough simply to reset a thing like this; one must also be worthy of it.
With that in mind, it would be wonderful for Chicago fans if Payton sets the record total so high that nobody can ever reach it. They have no doubt he's worthy. They love his charity work; they love his blue-collar intensity; they love the way he wants to break Brown's record. "I want to go up the middle, hit one guy, bounce off, hit another and another, jump over somebody and fight for the extra yard," he says. "I don't want to just break free around end and run unobstructed. I want it to be hard."
"Walter has his quirks," sums up Bear publicity man Pat McCaskey, "but I've never met a better superstar."
In May, Chicago signed Payton to a series of three one-year contracts, a package that guarantees him, among other things, $240,000 a year for no fewer than 43 years. Bear G.M. Jerry Vainisi called the agreement "the most lucrative in the history of the NFL." A few days before the signing, Payton had told a formal-dinner crowd he would, indeed, be playing for the Bears this season. This was news at the time—the USFL's Chicago Blitz was still courting him—and it so overjoyed Bear board chairman Ed McCaskey he fell to his knees and bowed low in front of Payton, stunning both the runner and the tuxedoed crowd.
In Chicago, such power is called clout, and it comes from being visible and indispensable. For most of his career Harris was just another cog in a Steeler machine that seemed to win Super Bowls every week or so. But for nine years Payton has been the only star on Bear teams that have gone 61-70 and appeared in only two playoff games, which they lost. Payton has started 120 games in a row and sat out only one of 131 games in his career. His importance to the Bears was all too obvious when he missed the 1978 preseason while engaged in a contract dispute and the Bear offense scored only three TDs in four games. Payton has long been the heart of the team, but with Papa Bear George Halas dead a year now, there's reason for Payton to be the soul as well. As new Bears president Mike McCaskey, yet another of the Halas in-laws who now run the team, puts it, "If you ask what the Bears stand for, you have to say Walter Payton."
And what does Walter stand for?
Payton considers this. He still has the ball in his lap, but he's squeezing it now, almost crushing it. His hands aren't huge, but they're strong as bear traps. They're the reason he can run upheld holding the ball one-handed, like a tomato, exactly the way every coach since time began has ordered his runners never to carry it. They're also the reason he can bring unsuspecting handshakers to their knees, fast.
"Pete Rose," he says. "Charlie Hustle. I'd like to be remembered as a guy like that, somebody who stands for hard work and total effort. I want to do everything perfectly on the field—pass blocking, running a dummy route, carrying out a fake, all of it."
And Payton has come closer to that ideal than anyone now playing. "It's possible nobody ever cut like Sayers," says Ditka. "And maybe nobody ever ran like Brown or slashed like O.J. But without a doubt Walter is the most complete football player I've ever seen."
"All this folderol about the rushing record has never meant anything to me," huffs Jim Finks, the Bears' general manager from 1974 to 1983 and now president of the Chicago Cubs. "In fact, Walter's rushing yards are probably the most overrated element of his play. For instance, there's no better blocker in the NFL. None. He flattens linebackers; he knocks down ends; he attacks noseguards. And the irony is that he's competing against a one-dimensional player. When Brown wasn't carrying the ball, he rested."
What makes Payton's style even more appealing is his childlike enthusiasm, that irrepressible drumbeat. After tackles he doesn't get up—he hops up. During time-outs on critical drives he leads the stadium in cheers. When he puts the ball down, he always sneaks it ahead a few inches, a habit he figures has gained him an extra 100 yards during his career. "When the refs move it back, I say, 'How do you expect me to catch Jim Brown if you do that?' " he says. "And they smile. But they still move the ball back." When friends describe Payton, they invariably compare him to a little boy, all eagerness, innocence and pranks.
"He's always snapping towels and lighting cherry bombs," says Bear quarterback Bob Avellini. "In a meeting when everybody's half-asleep, he'll give out an inhuman scream just for the hell of it."
"Uh-uh, no, absolutely not. This is business," says Payton when asked whether he'll light any bombs here in his office. "What's that saying—You don't poo-poo where you eat?"
He almost looks hurt. Almost.
"If a car backfires, everybody blames me. I was in an assistant coach's office one day, and all of a sudden—boom!—a firecracker went off in the locker room. Everybody's running around screaming, 'Walter, where are you!' And I said, 'Coach, I've been sitting here with you, and you know it wasn't me, but I'm gonna get blamed for this.' "
Couldn't he have used a delayed fuse?
"I don't know nothing about delayed fuses," says Payton. "Well, in high school and college maybe we did some of that. You know, get an M-80 or a cherry bomb, put a cigarette on it, tape it to the windshield of the car of somebody we didn't like....
"The ones I have now are M-80s," he says, nodding his head. "You can't get silver salutes or a lot of the other things anymore. But you can get M-80s through the government, for farm use only, for varmints. Just drop them in their hole and blow them out. Hey, I'm not gonna say where I get mine. Come on, I'll get in trouble...."
Likewise, there's something almost childishly perverse in the way Payton enjoys punishing tacklers, in blowing them out. "What about the pain they've dealt out to me?" he asks. "Pain is expected in this game." To that end, he has single-handedly reinvented the stiff arm and introduced it to a generation of safeties and cornerbacks. "It's a recoilless rifle," says Adamle. "There are a number of defensive backs in the league with fewer neck vertebrae because of it."
Of course, some tacklers get the whole Payton package. Recently retired Bear center Dan Neal remembers a play against the 49ers a few years ago when Payton ran into defensive end Tommy Hart so hard that the impact knocked the two apart as though they'd been shocked, after which Payton reversed his field and scored from 20 yards out. "And this was back when Hart was really cooking," says Neal. "Just the sound of the collision was something to hear."
To do such things a player must be incredibly strong, and Payton is. He can bench 390 pounds and does sets of leg presses with 700 pounds, and he can walk the width of a football field on his hands. "His strength is a little unusual," says O.J. Simpson, whose 11,236 yards puts him fourth on the rushing list. "In fact, it's amazing. He gets hit good a lot—I mean really tagged—but the next thing you know he's off and running. I broke my share of tackles, but I was never in that league."
There's one other thing about Payton: He won't run out-of-bounds. Running out-of-bounds is a hot issue in this rushing derby, and the reason is that Harris believes in it.
At times, running out-of-bounds would seem like an intelligent thing to do, especially when it appears that nothing is to be gained by staying inbounds except collision, pain and possible injury. But football logic is imprecise. It states that running out-of-bounds—except to kill the clock—is for sissies. Thus, the purists claim, Harris is weak and unworthy of the rushing crown. He's Roger Maris chasing the Babe.
In his spacious living room high above Los Angeles, Brown says that Harris is his friend, that all running backs are bonded together by ties not known to those who've never carried the ball. "We all have our Ph.Ds. in running," he says. Then he says that if Payton sets the record, he'll shake his hand. "But if Franco gets it, I'm sorry, I couldn't do it."
In his youth back in Mississippi, Payton's stiffest competition came from just down the hallway, from his older brother, Eddie, now 33. As a 5'8", 179-pound return specialist, Eddie Payton played for five different teams during his six years of pro ball. He didn't start his pro career, though, until after his younger-brother had started his. "I saw how well he was doing, and I knew I was a better back than him," is the way Eddie explains it, with apparent seriousness.
The rivalry between the brothers could get strained at times, and for Eddie, at least, there was a bothersome pattern to it. Everything he did—first in high school, then at Jackson State—Walter came along two years later and did a little better. As verbal and outgoing as Walter was shy, Eddie compensated by always telling his little brother what to do. "I didn't let them fight," says Mrs. Payton. "But I do think Walter sort of resented the older boy. Eddie would say, 'Let me show you how to do this,' and Walter would say, 'No, I don't want to know.' "
The brothers are close now but will probably always be too competitive to truly let their guard down around each other. Even the family home in Jackson, where Eddie lives with his mother (Mr. Payton died in 1978), is a combat zone. The fireplace mantel is stacked with trophies, but almost all of them, including a framed golf scorecard featuring a birdie 2 and a hole in one, belong to Eddie.
"Isn't that something?" says Walter. "He put all of my trophies away. Or if any of mine are there, he'll say they're his. Even that brochure he made for our football camp this summer, he used an old picture of me and a new one of him."
Eddie's defense—that he has treated Walter the way he has through the years "because I didn't want him to grow up to be a wimp"—is an older brother's line if ever there was one. Still, Eddie is at least partly responsible for Walter's success. He developed the Payton brothers' fearsome conditioning program, which consists primarily of running up and down a white sandbank along the Pearl River in the heat of summer and which has made Walter one of the best-conditioned runners in NFL history.
"Is it hard?" asks Eddie one spring day, looking down at the shimmering sand from the safety of the nearby Rankin County Bridge and smiling. "Well, we've had to leave guys at the bottom of the hill. Guys who've come along just to work out with us. Professional athletes. When they're finished throwing up, all they can do is sit there."
Walter Payton's home now is Chicago, and he's supposed to be here at the site of his "dream house," the comfort zone he and Connie have been planning for years. Located on 5½ partially wooded acres in a sedate, high-income suburb, the house, when completed this winter, will include just about every fun extra the two of them could think of—from immense walk-in closets to an atrium to a fully enclosed rifle range.
Construction has just started and things are messy, but the beauty of the place is evident. Two ponds intersect near the center of the land, forming a huge aquatic bow tie in front of the house. Small animal noises rise from the grassy banks of the ponds, and birds flutter in the willow stands. The contractor is waiting to meet with Payton, but Walter's nowhere in sight.
Suddenly, there's crashing in the woods, and a moment later Payton steps out onto the driveway. He's wearing sandals, sweat pants, a down vest and a tractor cap, and he's holding a hunting bow and an arrow attached to a spool of twine. Payton is a notorious woodsman, he and his best friend, ex-Bear Roland Harper, have a hunting motto that goes, "If it flies, it dies." Payton had hoped to spend two weeks this spring hunting Kodiak bears in Alaska, but his knee surgery forced him to cancel those plans. It was just as well, Connie feels. "Imagine that," she says, "two weeks with Walter alone. How could the guide take it?"
But this is fishing time.
"Come on," says Payton, and he charges back into the woods.
At the beginning of his career, Payton came close to being labeled a bad guy by the press. He was never a troublemaker, but he stood up too many reporters and he said too little when he did talk. Headlines such as PAYTON: SHY GUY WITH FEW WORDS and is PAYTON WITHDRAWN OR JUST RUDE? began to appear in the local papers. A classic press-athlete war seemed imminent.
"I think that early on he didn't know how to act. He was just a small-town kid suddenly thrust under lights in a big city," says one Chicago beat writer, "and because he was afraid of presenting the wrong image, he kept on the move and stayed evasive."
Fortunately, time has cured the incipient rift, and Payton is now seen as the endearing, if somewhat manic, person he is. He has matured a great deal, becoming a witty after-dinner speaker, a charmer of old ladies and a wily businessman with holdings—a chain of nightclubs, a Florida nursing home, 1,000 acres of Mississippi timberland—throughout America. But the drum still beats inside him, and there are certain things that haven't changed. The intensity of his feelings, for instance.
In 1976, his second year with the Bears, Payton sprained his ankle in the last game of the season, thus losing a chance to overtake O.J. Simpson for the NFL rushing title. As he came off the field, he covered his face and wept. Fans had never seen anything like that before, and they were startled. So many things had just come together, Payton tried to explain later, that he felt overwhelmed.
This was how he felt a year ago when Harper, his back-field mate and confidant for eight years—his brother—retired. "Walter, I'm always going to be around," Harper soothed. But Payton was crushed. He stopped joking at practices; he hardly talked at all. Harper ended up traveling to almost all the Bears' games, ostensibly to chart plays for the offense, but primarily to comfort his buddy, old Sweetness. Not many superstars need comforting.
Now, Payton is pointing at the pond and saying, "There are carp and bass in there, and I'm going to shoot one."
He spots a fish, draws his bow and fires. The arrow twangs, rips away from the twine and inbeds itself in a foot of mud five yards from shore. Though it's May, there's a chill in the air and the water is ice cold. Payton looks at his bow, at the arrow, at me. "You said you'd be my spear carrier," Payton says. "You'll get that, won't you?"
Getting a negative response, Payton sighs, then rolls up his sweats and slowly wades after the arrow. As he does, one can see the two fresh surgical scars on his knees, marks that look small and unobtrusive amidst the other battle wounds—discoloration from cleatings and turf burns, the scar left from stitching needed to close a cut suffered in a 1978 ABC Superstars competition. Nobody is really worried about his knees, anyway. He ran a 4.5 40 last year, which is about the same as he ran as a rookie. ("I could make him a lot faster just by correcting his arm action," says teammate Willie Gault, a world-class sprinter and hurdler, "but it wouldn't make him a better runner.") And he gained more than 2,000 yards both rushing and receiving last season, for the second time in his career, on those knees. "I don't even think about them," Payton says. "Never."
Back on dry land, he walks off to the site of his house, climbs up on the 12-foot-high foundation and, bow still in hand, roams to and fro on the narrow ledge, pointing out where the bedrooms will be: one for him and Connie; one for son Jarrett, 3; one for the other child they plan to have; and two rooms for guests. Then he's down and charging back to the car.
"What I really wanted was to break Brown's record last year, to do it in nine seasons like he did," Payton says. "But the strike messed things up. Now I want to get there before Franco. Actually, I'd like it to be a battle all year—first him, then me, then him, then me. Franco's a good friend—he's coming to my football camp this summer.... But it'll always be Brown's record, no matter who breaks it."
And what about Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell, the young guys back there around the 8,000-yard mark, cranking out 1,000-yard-plus seasons year after year?
"If I play three more years and get up near 16,000 yards, hey, let them come on," he says. "Nothing's etched in stone. I told you what I wanted. Not to be remembered as the best runner, but as a guy who gave all he had."
The very act of locomotion is fun for Payton, and he starts singing children's songs as he walks. "A frog went a-courtin', he did ride, uh-huh...." At the car, he takes off his sandals and puts on a pair of cowboy boots.
"These boots were worn by Bear Bryant," he says.
"No." And he's headed back down to the pond, singing again. "With a sword and a pistol by his side, uh-huh...."
He fires one arrow at a bird, and the arrow misses, hits a log and shatters. Then he takes his remaining arrow and shoots it a tenth of a mile out into the center of the pond. There's nothing calculated to this. He does it because he feels like it.
"Come on, ask questions!" he says.
But he's back in the woods now, sizing up his stand of trees.
"Think this one's dead?" he asks.
It looks dead.
Payton wiggles it back and forth and pulls it out of the ground.
"How about this one?"
He rocks it back and forth, branches falling on his hat and shoulders, the soft earth giving way. He pulls it up and out.
Payton is always doing things for kids—throwing benefits for sick ones, playing games with healthy ones, consoling troubled ones. He has told the Bears' p.r. office always to let him know if there's something he can do for children. It just may be that he has too much kid in him to be perfectly at ease with adults.
Even this ripping up of trees is fun for Payton. It takes brute strength, and there's conflict involved. Will the tree come out? Will it smack him in the face? And, of course, it's a workout. But above all, this is a good time.
"How about this? Dead? Alive?"
The tree is about a foot in circumference, and it has green buds. If I say it's dead, he'll pull it out. If I say it's alive, he'll pull it out, too, just for fun, just to be ornery. Pretty soon I'm laughing.
Payton hums, tearing down trees. There are some big ones here, and their demise is accompanied by snapping roots and the smell of fresh dirt.
"Will this come out?"
I can't answer. There's no answer to give. But something O.J. Simpson said recently goes through my mind.
"I think the greatest runner ever may have been Gale Sayers," said the Juice, "but he didn't have great stats, so all this ranking stuff doesn't really matter to me. All the great runners can leave us with, anyway, are memories. Twenty years from now, when I think of Walter Payton, I'll feel good. And nobody can change that."