I can take it. Really, I can. Artis Gilmore once threw a crumpled Hershey bar wrapper at me. Jimmy Piersall threatened to give me a black eye if he didn't like what I wrote about him. Kirk Gibson used to swing his bat so that it would miss me by inches.
After I'd phoned him at 4 in the morning, Charlie Finley called me names that would make an ex-convict blush. Lionel Hollins slammed down the receiver so hard, my ears rang as loudly as the phone. J.R. Richard looked at my extended handshake as if I had a rat in it. Horace Stoneham gave me directions to his house, then refused to see me when I got there.
The indignities stop disturbing you after a while. You develop an immunity. Your skin is so thick, you feel like a cafeteria pork chop. Nothing anyone can do, not even the Georgetown athletic department, can make you feel used and abused.
Or so I thought. Never in a million years did I expect a professional athlete--a superstar football player, in fact--to do what a certain Chicago Bear did to me in the locker room recently, after a playoff game, when my back was turned.
Walter Payton goosed me.
I know he did it. I know it. He kept walking and pretended it had never happened, but he did it. I will bet a Super Bowl paycheck on it. You rat, Walter. How can I ever look you in the face again? Worse, how can I ever look the other way from you again?
I mean, you can knock me down, step on my face, slander my name all over the place, but don't goose me in the locker room. It isn't dignified. Besides, the Bears need you against New England. You shouldn't risk serious thumb injury.
I was standing in the back of a pack at Jim McMahon's locker after the game with the New York Giants. Without warning--which goes without saying, I suppose--I felt something that nearly proved my ability to jump higher than Dwight Stones.
Quickly, I turned. No one was moving, anywhere near me, except Payton, who had just passed by. No one else was within, shall we say, arm's reach.
Maybe if I hadn't known how playful he can be, I would not have suspected him. But eight years ago, on a brief visit to a Bear training camp, Payton sneaked up from behind and tickled my side. He is always pulling something similar on somebody.
Payton is a loosey-goosey guy. Sometimes he sits in Bear headquarters and answers the phones. Sometimes he pulls practical jokes on teammates or mimics their voices.
His Refrigerator Perry impression--"Gimmetheball, I can get 6 yards"--is legendary in Chicago, and his latest victim is backup quarterback Steve Fuller, whose white-bread performance on the "Super Bowl Shuffle" rock video is more Four Preps than Four Tops.
Payton has been hip ever since he danced on the "Soul Train" TV show in his youth. He still has a kid-like demeanor about him, right down to that Michael Jackson voice. When I once asked William Perry, the Chicago supper star, if he could do an impression of Payton, the Chicago superstar, he said: "No. Walter sounds sort of squeaky."
Like a child, Payton also has a hard time sitting still. Very rarely will he sit tight for a couple of hours and have a heart-to-heart. A little light patter is fine, but nothing in-depth.
A few weeks ago, Payton got dressed after a game and affixed a beeper to his belt. I asked if he always wore one. "Sure. You know me," he said.
"Not really," I said.
"Why, where you from?" Payton asked.
"Los Angeles," I said.
"Oh. South Alabama," Payton said, for some reason.
Johnny Morris, a Chicago sportscaster and former Bear, overheard and said Payton has so many business interests, he has to keep a beeper. "Maybe he should wear it during the games," I said.
"I do," Payton said.
"No, really. I do!" Payton said, persuasively. "Tell him," he said to Morris.
"He does," Morris said.
Go ahead. Fool me. Goose me. Take your best shot. I can take it.
I followed Payton out the door after Sunday's NFC title game with the Rams, just to observe. Every five steps, someone asked for a couple of more minutes. A quickie interview. An autograph. One guy opened a sack and pulled out a Cabbage Patch-ish doll with a No. 34 Chicago jersey and jet black hair styled like Payton's. Walter signed it.
When the game was over and the Bears had made the Super Bowl, he had spoken of "climbing all those mountains" to get this far. Some guys thought Payton was referring to figurative mountains. He was not. He was talking about the steep hills near his home that he has scaled, day after day, to stay in shape through 11 years of professional football.
The beauty of Sweetness Payton over the years has been his durability, not his ability. He is not Gale Sayers. He is not all that fast and he rarely breaks 50-yarders. What he does do is get three yards when minus-three seems imminent. And he never, never, never seems to get hurt.
At 31, he still has that body that allows him to do somersaults after tackles or walk the length of the field on his hands. There is surprisingly little wear and tear on the guy who once insisted he would play five years in the NFL and then quit.
How the Bears want to win one more game this season for him. They spoke Sunday of the look in Payton's eye that warned them not to take any play too lightly. "I didn't play this game for me. I played it for Walter," linebacker Wilber Marshall said.
Payton groaned, comically. He felt like a Care Bear. "They keep saying, 'This one's for you.' They keep talking about me like I'm some old man," he said. "Hey, I'm not even the oldest guy on this team."
He still wants to act like a kid, see. He loves the kidding around, the playfulness, the giddiness. He loves going into a press conference after a game and having McMahon yank his bathrobe, as happened Sunday, while asking: "Are you naked under there, Walter?" He loves seeing who can take a joke and who can't.
I once spoke to Payton during a predicament that was not very funny. The Bears had been beaten badly. Asked if they had hit rock bottom, Payton replied: "We're beneath rock bottom."
Later, intending to describe the team's outlook as either glum or grim, Payton said: "Things look pretty glim for us right now."
Well, the star of Chicago is positively grimmering these days. Walter Payton, the super player, has made the Super Bowl. And with all due respect to the Patriots, I would like to see Payton rush for 200 yards and be voted most valuable player.
That way, after the game, he will be in such a good mood that he will not suspect a thing as he bends over into his locker to pick up his clothes. Heh, heh, heh.