SI Vault
Rick Telander
September 05, 1984
Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears is on target to become pro football's alltime leading rusher this season
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September 05, 1984

He's Aiming To Make History

Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears is on target to become pro football's alltime leading rusher this season

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Suddenly, there's crashing in the woods, and a moment later Payton steps out onto the driveway. He's wearing sandals, sweat pants, a down vest and a tractor cap, and he's holding a hunting bow and an arrow attached to a spool of twine. Payton is a notorious woodsman, he and his best friend, ex-Bear Roland Harper, have a hunting motto that goes, "If it flies, it dies." Payton had hoped to spend two weeks this spring hunting Kodiak bears in Alaska, but his knee surgery forced him to cancel those plans. It was just as well, Connie feels. "Imagine that," she says, "two weeks with Walter alone. How could the guide take it?"

But this is fishing time.

"Come on," says Payton, and he charges back into the woods.

At the beginning of his career, Payton came close to being labeled a bad guy by the press. He was never a troublemaker, but he stood up too many reporters and he said too little when he did talk. Headlines such as PAYTON: SHY GUY WITH FEW WORDS and is PAYTON WITHDRAWN OR JUST RUDE? began to appear in the local papers. A classic press-athlete war seemed imminent.

"I think that early on he didn't know how to act. He was just a small-town kid suddenly thrust under lights in a big city," says one Chicago beat writer, "and because he was afraid of presenting the wrong image, he kept on the move and stayed evasive."

Fortunately, time has cured the incipient rift, and Payton is now seen as the endearing, if somewhat manic, person he is. He has matured a great deal, becoming a witty after-dinner speaker, a charmer of old ladies and a wily businessman with holdings—a chain of nightclubs, a Florida nursing home, 1,000 acres of Mississippi timberland—throughout America. But the drum still beats inside him, and there are certain things that haven't changed. The intensity of his feelings, for instance.

In 1976, his second year with the Bears, Payton sprained his ankle in the last game of the season, thus losing a chance to overtake O.J. Simpson for the NFL rushing title. As he came off the field, he covered his face and wept. Fans had never seen anything like that before, and they were startled. So many things had just come together, Payton tried to explain later, that he felt overwhelmed.

This was how he felt a year ago when Harper, his back-field mate and confidant for eight years—his brother—retired. "Walter, I'm always going to be around," Harper soothed. But Payton was crushed. He stopped joking at practices; he hardly talked at all. Harper ended up traveling to almost all the Bears' games, ostensibly to chart plays for the offense, but primarily to comfort his buddy, old Sweetness. Not many superstars need comforting.

Now, Payton is pointing at the pond and saying, "There are carp and bass in there, and I'm going to shoot one."

He spots a fish, draws his bow and fires. The arrow twangs, rips away from the twine and inbeds itself in a foot of mud five yards from shore. Though it's May, there's a chill in the air and the water is ice cold. Payton looks at his bow, at the arrow, at me. "You said you'd be my spear carrier," Payton says. "You'll get that, won't you?"

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