Tuesday, November 02, 1999

Payton's legacy more than just numbers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Walter Payton had finished his last game of football, and now he sat curled up in a corner at Soldier Field. While teammates showered and fled the scene and reporters looked anxiously at their watches, the great running back remained mute and motionless.

        He kept his helmet on and his eyes closed, a Chicago Bear in hibernation or meditation or something. Locker room staff moved the crowd of the curious back, like cops cordoning off an accident scene.

        “Give him 5 yards to breathe,” someone said. “Let him breathe.”

        Payton must have sat there like that for 15 or 20 minutes — so long that it seemed affected; so long that the reporters were growing restless. Most of us were anxious for a quote that would convey the essence of Payton's experience. But Dave Anderson, the wise man from the New York Times, was content to watch.

        “This,” he said, “is better.”

        Some pictures are worth more than a thousand words. Some of them are priceless. When Walter Payton breathed his last Monday afternoon, I could remember nothing he had said on his final day in uniform, but the scene was indelible.

An incomplete script
        It was Jan.10, 1988. The Bears were losing a playoff game to the Washington Redskins, the wind off Lake Michigan was fierce, and the most resolved of running backs had been stopped 1 yard short of a first down on the last play of his last season.

        When the game ended, Payton sat alone on the bench for a while in the bitter cold, a great athlete contemplating retirement. They called him “Sweetness,” but there was always a streak of melancholy in Payton, as if life never quite conformed to his script.

        When the Bears pulverized the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, Payton left the playing field pouting. He already had passed Jim Brown as pro football's all-time rushing leader and at last had achieved a championship with a Chicago team he had spent a career carrying. But each time the Bears neared the goal line that night at the Louisiana Superdome, other players had been handed the ball.

        William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who would play himself out of pro football through personal neglect, would score a touchdown that night. Payton, who personified effort, had been shut out. Despite the Bears' decisive victory, Payton was distraught at how his Super Bowl performance might be remembered.

        A sympathetic bystander suggested the Bears were so dominant that they were bound to get back to the big game; that Payton surely would get another shot at the end zone.

        “Tomorrow,” Payton said darkly, “is promised to no man.”

Master of his craft
        He was 45 years old when he was killed by cancer, a complication of primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease. There had been some talk of a transplant, but the prognosis was never promising. For the better part of a year, Payton knew he was running short of tomorrows, and he no longer could run fast enough to break free of his confinement.

        Payton was never the fastest man with a football. He was never as graceful as Gale Sayers nor as breathtaking as Barry Sanders. If you had to choose one back for one game, Jim Brown is still that guy. But none of those great backs gained as many yards as Payton (16,726), and none of them mastered his craft so completely. He played every game — and every phase of the game — as if it were his last.

        At a position largely populated by prima donnas with an aversion to blocking, Payton's role model was the grittiest athlete of the age.

        “Charlie Hustle,” Payton said, referring to Pete Rose. “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.”

        Eventually, Payton's records will be surpassed. Sanders may reconsider retirement. Emmitt Smith may linger long enough to become the all-time leading rusher. Time marches on. Tomorrow is promised to no man.

        Numbers, though, are not much of a tribute. Payton's legacy is not about how many yards he gained but about how well he used his gifts.

        This is better.

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.


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