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"Walter has his quirks," sums up Bear publicity man Pat McCaskey, "but I've never met a better superstar."
In May, Chicago signed Payton to a series of three one-year contracts, a package that guarantees him, among other things, $240,000 a year for no fewer than 43 years. Bear G.M. Jerry Vainisi called the agreement "the most lucrative in the history of the NFL." A few days before the signing, Payton had told a formal-dinner crowd he would, indeed, be playing for the Bears this season. This was news at the time—the USFL's Chicago Blitz was still courting him—and it so overjoyed Bear board chairman Ed McCaskey he fell to his knees and bowed low in front of Payton, stunning both the runner and the tuxedoed crowd.
In Chicago, such power is called clout, and it comes from being visible and indispensable. For most of his career Harris was just another cog in a Steeler machine that seemed to win Super Bowls every week or so. But for nine years Payton has been the only star on Bear teams that have gone 61-70 and appeared in only two playoff games, which they lost. Payton has started 120 games in a row and sat out only one of 131 games in his career. His importance to the Bears was all too obvious when he missed the 1978 preseason while engaged in a contract dispute and the Bear offense scored only three TDs in four games. Payton has long been the heart of the team, but with Papa Bear George Halas dead a year now, there's reason for Payton to be the soul as well. As new Bears president Mike McCaskey, yet another of the Halas in-laws who now run the team, puts it, "If you ask what the Bears stand for, you have to say Walter Payton."
And what does Walter stand for?
Payton considers this. He still has the ball in his lap, but he's squeezing it now, almost crushing it. His hands aren't huge, but they're strong as bear traps. They're the reason he can run upheld holding the ball one-handed, like a tomato, exactly the way every coach since time began has ordered his runners never to carry it. They're also the reason he can bring unsuspecting handshakers to their knees, fast.
"Pete Rose," he says. "Charlie Hustle. I'd like to be remembered as a guy like that, 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."
And Payton has come closer to that ideal than anyone now playing. "It's possible nobody ever cut like Sayers," says Ditka. "And maybe nobody ever ran like Brown or slashed like O.J. But without a doubt Walter is the most complete football player I've ever seen."
"All this folderol about the rushing record has never meant anything to me," huffs Jim Finks, the Bears' general manager from 1974 to 1983 and now president of the Chicago Cubs. "In fact, Walter's rushing yards are probably the most overrated element of his play. For instance, there's no better blocker in the NFL. None. He flattens linebackers; he knocks down ends; he attacks noseguards. And the irony is that he's competing against a one-dimensional player. When Brown wasn't carrying the ball, he rested."
What makes Payton's style even more appealing is his childlike enthusiasm, that irrepressible drumbeat. After tackles he doesn't get up—he hops up. During time-outs on critical drives he leads the stadium in cheers. When he puts the ball down, he always sneaks it ahead a few inches, a habit he figures has gained him an extra 100 yards during his career. "When the refs move it back, I say, 'How do you expect me to catch Jim Brown if you do that?' " he says. "And they smile. But they still move the ball back." When friends describe Payton, they invariably compare him to a little boy, all eagerness, innocence and pranks.
"He's always snapping towels and lighting cherry bombs," says Bear quarterback Bob Avellini. "In a meeting when everybody's half-asleep, he'll give out an inhuman scream just for the hell of it."