At times, running out-of-bounds would seem like an intelligent thing to do, especially when it appears that nothing is to be gained by staying inbounds except collision, pain and possible injury. But football logic is imprecise. It states that running out-of-bounds—except to kill the clock—is for sissies. Thus, the purists claim, Harris is weak and unworthy of the rushing crown. He's Roger Maris chasing the Babe.
In his spacious living room high above Los Angeles, Brown says that Harris is his friend, that all running backs are bonded together by ties not known to those who've never carried the ball. "We all have our Ph.Ds. in running," he says. Then he says that if Payton sets the record, he'll shake his hand. "But if Franco gets it, I'm sorry, I couldn't do it."
In his youth back in Mississippi, Payton's stiffest competition came from just down the hallway, from his older brother, Eddie, now 33. As a 5'8", 179-pound return specialist, Eddie Payton played for five different teams during his six years of pro ball. He didn't start his pro career, though, until after his younger-brother had started his. "I saw how well he was doing, and I knew I was a better back than him," is the way Eddie explains it, with apparent seriousness.
The rivalry between the brothers could get strained at times, and for Eddie, at least, there was a bothersome pattern to it. Everything he did—first in high school, then at Jackson State—Walter came along two years later and did a little better. As verbal and outgoing as Walter was shy, Eddie compensated by always telling his little brother what to do. "I didn't let them fight," says Mrs. Payton. "But I do think Walter sort of resented the older boy. Eddie would say, 'Let me show you how to do this,' and Walter would say, 'No, I don't want to know.' "
The brothers are close now but will probably always be too competitive to truly let their guard down around each other. Even the family home in Jackson, where Eddie lives with his mother (Mr. Payton died in 1978), is a combat zone. The fireplace mantel is stacked with trophies, but almost all of them, including a framed golf scorecard featuring a birdie 2 and a hole in one, belong to Eddie.
"Isn't that something?" says Walter. "He put all of my trophies away. Or if any of mine are there, he'll say they're his. Even that brochure he made for our football camp this summer, he used an old picture of me and a new one of him."
Eddie's defense—that he has treated Walter the way he has through the years "because I didn't want him to grow up to be a wimp"—is an older brother's line if ever there was one. Still, Eddie is at least partly responsible for Walter's success. He developed the Payton brothers' fearsome conditioning program, which consists primarily of running up and down a white sandbank along the Pearl River in the heat of summer and which has made Walter one of the best-conditioned runners in NFL history.
"Is it hard?" asks Eddie one spring day, looking down at the shimmering sand from the safety of the nearby Rankin County Bridge and smiling. "Well, we've had to leave guys at the bottom of the hill. Guys who've come along just to work out with us. Professional athletes. When they're finished throwing up, all they can do is sit there."
Walter Payton's home now is Chicago, and he's supposed to be here at the site of his "dream house," the comfort zone he and Connie have been planning for years. Located on 5½ partially wooded acres in a sedate, high-income suburb, the house, when completed this winter, will include just about every fun extra the two of them could think of—from immense walk-in closets to an atrium to a fully enclosed rifle range.
Construction has just started and things are messy, but the beauty of the place is evident. Two ponds intersect near the center of the land, forming a huge aquatic bow tie in front of the house. Small animal noises rise from the grassy banks of the ponds, and birds flutter in the willow stands. The contractor is waiting to meet with Payton, but Walter's nowhere in sight.