This Being an autumn Saturday afternoon before a home game, Ahman Green kisses his wife, Shalynn, and hugs their four-year-old daughter, Ahmani, before banishing them upstairs. Soon he will join the other Green Bay Packers for their pregame stay at the team hotel, but first he must tend to one important bit of business. He closes the living-room blinds, shuts off the stereo, dims the lights, settles into the overstuffed armchair and grips the remote. Then in hushed reverence he stares at the god dancing across his TV screen.
Never mind that Green has already seen this tape too many times to count. For the next hour he will watch Walter Payton go from impoverished boy to Jackson State star to Chicago Bears great, Super Bowl winner and NFL career rushing leader. Green will watch Payton dart around and pound through tacklers. Mesmerized by Payton's grace and skill, Green will fall into a familiar slack-jawed trance. Only then will he be ready for football. "It'll always be that way with that video, and it should be," says Shalynn. "It's like he has to become Walter Payton. It relaxes him. When the video is finished, he's in another place, and I know then I don't have to worry about him."
"Walter was the greatest," Ahman says of Payton, who died of bile-duct cancer and liver disease in 1999 at age 45. "If I don't watch the tape, I'm not focused. He's always been my idol, and I try to carry him onto the field with me."
In the midst of a renaissance that would've seemed preposterous only a season ago, Green, a fourth-year pro, has made remarkable strides with his channeling of Payton. After two unimpressive seasons with the Seattle Seahawks that were marked by a propensity to fumble and by struggles with coach Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense, Green was traded in April 2000 to Green Bay, which needed a kick returner and backup to running back Dorsey Levens. Thrust into the featured spot when knee injuries plagued and eventually sidelined Levens last season, Green responded with shockingly good numbers: 1,175 rushing yards and 73 receptions, both team highs for the year, despite starting only 11 games.
His star is still on the rise for a team that sits atop the NFC Central with a 4-1 record. Green leads the NFC in rushing with 439 yards, and in a 31-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens and their vaunted defense on Sunday, he ran for 54 yards. On a third-and-nine situation late in the third quarter, he dashed for 19 yards, setting up his own one-yard touchdown run that put the Packers ahead 24-10.
"As good as he is, he can be better—which is scary," says Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "He's young, and he has to adjust to this offense and to how much we ask him to do. If he can do that, he can be very dominating."
The 24-year-old Green has even earned comparisons with his hero. Just as Payton doled out punishment to would-be tacklers, Green looks to initiate contact. Just as Payton rarely succumbed to the first hit, Green often leaves the first defender in a heap. At six feet and a chiseled 217 pounds, he's a deceptively powerful, breathtakingly fast runner. Indeed, few running backs can match his ability both to move a pile and outrun defensive backs—on the same play, no less.
Blessed with tree-trunk thighs and an iron will, Green is a sure bet on short-yardage downs—last year he converted a league-best 12 of 13 third-and-one situations—but should he encounter a roadblock, his 4.3 speed can be handy. Ask Detroit Lions linebacker Chris Claiborne, who hopelessly gave chase in Week 1 after Green was momentarily stopped at the line and then darted around left end on an 83-yard touchdown run. "His legs are very strong, but he's very fast, and people tend to forget that," Claiborne says.
Green's emergence has benefited Favre, who struggled at times over the last two seasons when forced to carry too much of the load. Green has plenty of room to grow as a receiver—though he leads the team again this year in receptions, with 26, he dropped three balls in the first two games—but Packers coach and general manager Mike Sherman says the improvement will come with time.
That said, Sherman looks smarter every time Green touches the ball. After serving as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator during Green's second season in Seattle, Sherman became Green Bay's coach in April 2000, and he lobbied Ron Wolf, the Packers' general manager at the time, to deal for Green. "In Seattle you could see that Ahman just needed more carries to improve," says Sherman, "but with Ricky Watters in place, there weren't many carries left."