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."