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It is early August, 1982. Walter Payton, who has just turned 28, sits in the lobby of one of the players' dorms at the Chicago Bears' Lake Forest, Ill. training camp and stretches his legs. He wears dark shorts and a powder-blue T shirt, which looks almost phosphorescent in the gathering darkness, accentuating his powerful upper body.
"I feel," he says, "like an old man."
He doesn't look it. He still flashes the little-boy grin that people noticed right off when he showed up at his first Bear camp in 1975, a rookie barely turned 21. His face is unlined. His movements are quick; he can't sit still for long. He gets up, paces, taps his green motorcycle, which stands in the middle of the lobby, sits down, gets up again. He talks quickly, in staccato bursts. You get a feeling of electricity. Sparks seem to shoot from him.
But the feeling of encroaching age is understandable. Payton has carried the ball more than 2,200 times in his seven-year NFL career and almost always everybody in the stadium, especially the people on defense, knew he was going to carry it. The Bears haven't had a passing attack since the days of Rudy Bukich. Payton left. Payton right. Payton up the middle. Walter Payton carrying the Chicago Bears on his shoulders.
"Not by myself," Payton says. "Nobody can carry a team by himself."
The Bears have also been dimly aware of that fact through the years, of the need to concoct a passing game and join the 20th century, to take the pressure off their 5'10½", 204-pound halfback, who, wondrous as he is, is after all only made of flesh and bone. Now they're at it again with a new coach, Mike Ditka, and a pass-happy quarterback, Jim McMahon, whom they drafted in the first round. But Payton has been down this road before.
It started for him in 1977. That year, his third in the NFL, the Bears hired the legendary Sid Gillman, genius of the passing offense. They traded first-and fourth-round draft choices to Cleveland for veteran Quarterback Mike Phipps and drafted another one, Vince Evans, out of USC Oh, they were going airborne all right.
Well, the Bears reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years that season. They reached them because Payton ran for the fourth highest yardage in NFL history (1,852), including a single-game record 275 against Minnesota. Just as he'd done in 1976, Payton carried the ball more times than the Bears threw it—339 carries for Walter, a league record, 305 passes for the entire Bear team. After the season, the writers asked Walter when he thought he was going to break Jim Brown's alltime career rushing record. What the heck, the kid was only 23 and he was two seasons away from cracking the league's Top 20, lifetime.
"I won't be around long enough," he said. "Five years is plenty in this game."
Payton smiles now when reminded of those words. "Yes, I remember what I said in '77," he says. "I still feel the same way, but the enthusiasm has always been there. I don't mean just to play. I'm talking about the training, the preparation to get yourself ready to take the beating. If that goes, whether it's next year or after 10 years, well, it's time to get out."