TIME TO LEAVE : Payton Makes His Final Appearance at Coliseum Sunday Against Raiders
The familiar peristyles at the east end of the Coliseum show up occasionally in ancient, flickering football film clips.
Like those from the early days of Walter Payton’s career.
No other stadium is enriched with as much football lore as the one on Figueroa--not even ancient Soldier Field where Payton played all of his 13 seasons with the Bears.
College or pro or both, virtually all of the game’s greats have performed in the Coliseum, so it’s a happy circumstance of the National Football League’s automatic, pre-rigged scheduling that finds Sir Walter here Sunday for his last appearance, against the Raiders.
Who said computers are cold and unfeeling? Payton might have ended his career at St. Louis, which may not even have a team next season.
Actually, he hopes to really end it next Jan. 31 at San Diego.
“This is not my last game,” he said by phone from Chicago this week. “The Super Bowl is.”
That’s Payton: Sunny-side up, the way he would like to be known and remembered, if not necessarily the way everybody knows him.
Certainly, no one will forget the record 16,644 yards-and-counting he’s accumulated, having passed Jim Brown about three miles back, or the string of 188 consecutive games he’s played, dating back to the only one he ever missed in his rookie year of 1975.
But he said he’d like his athletic epitaph to read “that football was just a small part of his life, and outside of the game of football he was a real human being.”
Mike Ditka, his coach, was talking this week about the difficulty in motivating some of his players and the fact that he’d never had to motivate Payton.
“Never,” Ditka said from Chicago. “He’s the greatest. He motivates me. When I feel like I’m down, I look at him and he’s up.
“He ran every play yesterday (in practice) for the offense and the defense and everybody. He was everywhere he could be. They have one out there just like him in (Marcus) Allen. We’re very proud of Walter and he should be proud of himself, because he’s worked for it.”
Payton’s rushing average is down this season from his career mark of 4.4 yards per attempt to 3.6, but he hasn’t had the veteran Matt Suhey blocking for him. Instead, his backfield mate--and the Bears’ leading rusher--has been Neal Anderson, a first-round draft choice from Florida last year.
Anderson has 586 yards to Payton’s 451--much of which he owes to Payton’s blocking--but he’ll be out with a knee injury this week, reuniting Payton and Suhey.
Next year, with Payton gone, Anderson will move to his natural position of halfback/tailback, with somebody else leading the way.
Looking to a future without Payton, Ditka said, “We’ll just line up with a lot of one back with three receivers, but we’ll also go to a two-back set with our fullback in there.
“You’re not gonna replace Walter. Everybody says you lose a step, but everything happens when you play the game for 13 years. What he contributes is so much greater than any diminishing thing I see. We’re gonna miss him being around, being on the field, kidding around, keeping players loose.
“Superstars have a tendency to go into a shell and be by themselves and isolate. This guy is just the opposite. He’s kind of our lifeblood down in that locker room.”
Payton said: “The thing I’ll miss most is the relationships and the friends I’ve made in football, the day-to-day contact you have, living together.
“The things that I would miss the least? Probably conference calls and two-a-day practices and all the doubting Thomases.”
He wasn’t kidding about the conference calls. Coming over a speaker phone to Raider writers for a few minutes, Payton sounded like he had to pay for the call.
Asked when he decided to retire, he said, “When I signed my contract last year.”
And what brought him to that decision?
“There are other things I want to do.”
Can you amplify on that?
As for what he meant by “doubting Thomases”: “You’ll have to read through that.”
Payton may never admit it, unless he does so in the book he’s doing with writer Bob Verdi, but he has never felt completely appreciated.
“I do sense that,” Gale Sayers, a former Bear running back who has preceded Payton into the Hall of Fame, said a few days ago. “I think it’s because Walter is not an exciting football player.”
Such a remark might be blasphemous in Chicago, but Sayers stood his ground.
“He is there day in and day out. If he can run it, he’ll get you five (yards), he’ll get you four, he’ll get you six. But he won’t get you 80. He won’t break that 50. I think that’s why he feels that way. He’s a great football player, but he’s not an exciting football player.
“He has been blessed to be able to play 13 years. It is unbelievable for a running back to play that long.”
Sayers was at the other extreme. He was around only seven years and played only four full seasons before knee injuries finished him off.
"(Payton’s) career has been one of consistency,” Sayers said. “From his second year to his 12th year he has been as consistent as anybody who ever played the game. He will go down as pro football’s greatest all-time player . . . an all-round player. You talk about blocking and faking and the effort he puts into everything is unbelievable.”
But Sayers wouldn’t rank him any higher than fifth all-time among running backs.
“Personally, I thought Jim Brown was the best I’ve seen,” Sayers said. “But you go back to 1920 and talk about 20,000 players and maybe 5,000 running backs, and if you rank in the top 20 that’s a great feat. Walter Payton will be in the top 5, 6, 7 players because people look at records. They’ll put him in there someplace. You have to.
“Hey, I played 68 ball games. That’s all I played. If you’re in the top 25 out of 5,000, that’s great. I’ll take it.”
But that may not be good enough for Payton. While he talks about being team-oriented, Chicago writers claim he sulked on his stool after the Super Bowl rout of New England two years ago because William Perry, a fat defensive tackle, had scored a touchdown and he hadn’t.
Asked this week about reports that he was in a snit early this season because Anderson was becoming the featured back, Payton said, “No, you’re probably reading from a bootleg press.”
And yet Payton was quoted at the time: “I never thought it would be like this. I don’t know if they really want me or need me.”
Payton’s nickname is “Sweetness,” but the truth is, one veteran Bear writer said, that his reputation “is a myth around the country. He’s always been a pain in the butt for us. He’s been a whiner since the Super Bowl.”
When players assess one another, press relations don’t matter, and Raider tight end Todd Christensen--whose own press relations happen to be excellent--gives his highest rating to Payton.
“What he did yards-wise might be matched but career-wise won’t,” Christensen said this week. “Somebody who has started and played 13 years as a running back, I don’t think it’s gonna happen again. He’s like Marcus. He’s a great football player, not just a great runner.
“He always impressed me as a person who marches to his own drummer but in a way that didn’t alienate people.
“His workouts are legend. And you have to understand, as an athlete, it’s one thing the first three or four years of your career to fire up in the off-season and run those hills and lift those weights. But this guy continues to do it.”
Payton, 33, will retire before his age matches his number 34, which was retired last Sunday during the 34-21 loss to Seattle at Soldier Field. But he probably won’t drop out of sight.
Irv Cross said on CBS last Sunday, “Walter Payton has assembled $120 million in backing for an NFL expansion franchise, probably on the West Coast.”
Asked about that, Payton said, “I didn’t say anything about the West Coast. Irv talks too much.”
He admitted to longtime reports that he wants to be an NFL owner but didn’t want to talk about it.
For example, what steps has he taken?
“Hopefully, the right ones,” he said.
End of subject.
Actually, last off-season he called on Commissioner Pete Rozelle with his two advisers, agent Bud Holmes and tax attorney Gerald Richman, to discuss an expansion franchise.
Payton is believed to have told Rozelle he wanted to be the principal owner. Rozelle must have asked him if he had that kind of money, because Payton apparently told him.
Rozelle said after the meeting, “He’s probably as well set financially near the end of a football career as any great athlete who ever played.”
Payton has invested well in several businesses, including restaurants, night clubs and the Payton Leisure Management Company. He has several major endorsements, including Buick, Wilson Sporting Goods, Hilton Hotels, Kangaroo shoes and his mug on almost every box of Wheaties in the country.
He also is actively involved in a half-dozen major charities and even gave something back to the fans last week. After each of the two touchdowns he scored, he reared back and fired the ball high into the stands.
“Just my way of saying thanks,” he said.
If Payton has any sense of history, he’ll fire another one through the peristyles Sunday.