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With 14:11 to go in the third quarter of the Chicago Bears' game with the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field Sunday, Walter Payton ran past Jim Brown and into a shimmering new realm. He gained six yards on a Toss-28-Weak—the 2-back, Payton, wide left through the 8-hole on the weak side—and thereby increased his career rushing total to 12,317 yards, five more than Brown gained in his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns. At that instant Payton, in the sixth game of his 10th NFL season, officially became the top runner in the history of pro football.
The record fell on Payton's second carry of the second half, his 17th of the day. The ball was on the Bears' 21, second-and-nine. Chicago was leading 13-7—and would go on to win 20-7—and a gray sky was promising rain. There was nothing special about the call; the Bears have used the play dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times during Payton's career. Payton was the I-back in an I-Right formation, and flanker Dennis McKinnon went in motion from right to left, crossing in front of Payton and fullback Matt Suhey as quarterback Jim McMahon shouted the signals.
At the snap, left tackle Jim Covert and tight end Emery Moorehead blocked down. Left guard Mark Bortz pulled, and he, McKinnon and Suhey led into the hole. Payton skittered along in the backfield, holding the ball like a potato in his right hand, the way he likes to do it, surveying the scene before him. Then he tucked the ball away, squared his shoulders to the line and headed for history.
For weeks Payton had been trying to ignore the pressure building around him. Before the Dallas game the previous week, Payton had been so pumped up with anticipation he'd nearly passed out. "I've never felt like that before," he said. "It sort of scared me. I really couldn't see anybody unless they were two or three feet in front of me."
He'd needed 221 yards in that game to catch Brown, and in the Cowboys' 24-year history only one person had ever run more than 200 yards against them. That was Jim Brown. But there was no betting against Payton. He holds the NFL single-game rushing record of 275 yards, and when he takes off, as teammate Al Harris says, "he runs with a fever." He gained 130 yards on 20 carries in the first half against Dallas, but for some reason was called on to carry the ball only five times in the second half and finished with 155 yards, 67 short of what he needed to surpass Brown.
Gaining 67 yards "isn't like falling off a log," coach Mike Ditka pointed out to the swelling media contingent gathered at the Bears' training camp in Lake Forest on Thursday. "Multiply that times 16 games, and see what you get." What you get is 1,072 yards, a tidy sum. But not for Payton, who has gained more than that in all but two of his pro seasons—his rookie year and strike-shortened 1982.
"The pressure goes with the job," Payton said late in the week. "It's just when I'm driving home and there are two or three guys following me with cameras hanging out their windows, waiting to see if I'll signal when I make a right turn, that it gets tough."
One night during the week, Payton watched a TV highlight film of the NFL's greatest running backs, and for the first time in his life he studied the man he was about to pass. " Jim Brown was big and strong and quick," Payton observed. "And he even made a one-handed catch. Hey, that's what football's all about." That and staying healthy, which was one of Brown's attributes and certainly is one of Payton's. Sunday's game marked Payton's 126th consecutive start for the Bears.
When Payton's transcendent moment arrived, however, Brown was nowhere in sight. In the last few months, he had made so much fuss about the manner in which his record was being approached—about the overall worthiness of Payton, Franco Harris, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, John Riggins—that the Bears' management felt it would be best if he didn't attend the game. "We want it to be Walter's day," said club president Michael McCaskey.
And it was. Payton finished the game with 154 yards rushing on 32 carries for a grand total of 12,400 yards. It was his fifth consecutive 100-yard-plus game and the 59th of his career, which broke another of Brown's records. Payton now holds 21 Bear records and four NFL records, and another five NFL career marks are within his reach, including most rushing attempts, most rushing touchdowns and most 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Moreover, he leads the NFL in rushing this season with 775 yards and is off to the best start of his career, averaging just over 129 yards per game. At his current pace he'll pass O.J. Simpson's record of 2,003 yards for a season in the second half of the Bears' last game, against the Detroit Lions.