This is tough. This is pain. Walter Payton has been sitting in a chair for 10 minutes and he has to move. He doesn't want to—he has to.
He stands up. He paces. He had arthroscopic surgery on both knees four weeks earlier—20 minutes on the left, 40 on the right—but the knees don't hurt. Not with real pain, anyway. Not the way pro running backs know it. "He follows the code," says Jim Brown, whose NFL career rushing record of 12,312 yards Payton will soon pass; he needs another 687 yards. "The old gladiator code." Indeed, Payton played full-court basketball two days before the April 5 surgery, even though his knees were already damaged, had in fact been banged up since the third game last season. "He ran kind of stiff-legged all year," says Chicago Bear coach Mike Ditka, "and he ran for more than 1,400 yards. The doctor wondered how he did that on those knees."
No, for the 5'10½", 204-pound, 30-year-old running back who lists drums and privacy as two of his main interests, pain is being trapped like this, having to talk about yourself, getting probed, not pounding on something or somebody, not moving. Connie Payton, Walter's college sweetheart at Jackson State and wife of eight years, still watches in amazement whenever her husband pulls one of his several cars out of the family driveway in suburban Arlington Heights, drives around the block and then reparks the car where it was, "just to do something."
And Payton now is laid back compared with the way he was in the old days. After the 1976 season, Payton's second with the Bears, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Don Pierson visited him in Jackson, Miss., where Payton's family had recently moved from nearby Columbia. "It was the most frantic 11 hours I've ever spent," says Pierson.
Payton, who had a CB radio at the time, picked Pierson up at the airport. "His handle was Mississippi Maniac, and all I could think was thank God for his reflexes, because we were going 60 and all over the road," says Pierson. "It was hot as blazes and he had the radio on and he sang while we talked. When we got to his house, he turned on the stereo and the TV and started folding laundry. Then he went into his den and started playing his drums to the stereo, and I remember he said, 'This is like doing 70 push-ups.' After that, he and five buddies ran up and down the banks of the Pearl River till they were exhausted, after which we drove to a brewery for beer. When we got back to his house, Walter got a hose and started watering his lawn."
After that, Payton went indoors and simultaneously played chess with a friend and watched TV. "He was standing up, slapping his thighs, saying, 'Move, move, move! I can't stand it when you play slow,' " says Pierson. Payton then dragged the writer off to shop for stereo equipment before heading to a driving range to hit golf balls. The two met Connie, ate dinner in 15 minutes, and Payton drove Pierson to the airport to catch his plane. In the concourse, Payton acted as though he were holding a bowling ball, then began making motions as though he were rolling the ball. "I'll never forget that," says Pierson. "He'd done almost every sport that day, and now he was bowling down the hallway."
"Yeah, I sleep," says Payton now. His voice, soft and high as a little boy's, could pass for Michael Jackson's. He even looks like the singer, if one can imagine Jackson with an extra 75 pounds of muscle. "You think I don't sleep? You think this is 24 hours nonstop?"
It certainly seems that way. Payton walks back and forth in his office at Studebaker's, a trendy nightspot he owns in a suburban Chicago shopping center. Clad in jeans and T shirt, he holds a football in his right hand. Periodically, he smacks the ball hard with his left hand, and the walls ring with the sound.
In the back room, his secretary, Tracey Nguyen, answers calls and tries to make sense of Payton's off-season schedule, a jumble of business meetings, workouts, charity functions, hunting and fishing trips, excursions to look at cars, and a myriad of other things a kid with a lot of money might be expected to do. Connie Payton insisted Walter get a secretary 10 months ago. Payton is a corporation, a symbol, a sovereign entity like other sports millionaires, and his habit of breaking appointments and forgetting events unnerved his wife. Now Payton simply calls Nguyen every day, and she tells him what to do.
"I've just always been active," he says. "I was born that way, having to move." A beeper on his belt goes off, and he walks into another room and grabs a phone. The action temporarily soothes him.