"I think," someone tells him, "you're going to have one of those marathon careers, that after 15 years you'll still be saying the same thing."
"If I thought that would happen," Payton says, flashing his grin, "I'd cut my wrists right now."
Jim Brown's record, once deemed unbreakable, is now within reach. Payton is asked about it every day or so, and his answer is routine: "Right now I just want to get through training camp," a logical ambition for anyone who has gotten a taste of the heavy-contact practices Ditka runs. But Payton doesn't often forget about Brown's career record of 12,312 yards.
"I'm a little less than 400 yards away from 10,000," Payton says (he stands at 9,608, fifth on the alltime list). "I can get it with two 1,400-yard seasons." Which would give him the mark at the end of 1983, the last year of his current three-year contract worth almost $2 million, richest in pro football.
Jim Finks, the general manager, was asked last year if the dollars weren't a bit extravagant for an organization as conservative as the Bears'.
"For another player, maybe," he said. "But Walter's got the skins on the wall."
This year Payton will be playing under his third head coach, Ditka, and his fifth offensive coordinator, Ed Hughes. For the sixth straight season the Bears are talking about constructing a passing game to take the pressure off Payton (in the past four years the Bears have done no better than 26th in the NFL in passing). For the first time since Payton joined the team they devoted a No. 1 draft choice to what is called a "skill" position—runner, catcher or thrower—when they selected BYU Quarterback Jim McMahon, Jimmy Scott, their long-ball receiving threat, is back from a year in Montreal. And Ditka, along with Hughes, with whom he worked in Dallas, has brought in the complexities and multiple formations of the Cowboy system, complete with the unique up-down that the offensive linemen do before the ball is snapped. Ditka says he will use the shotgun, not only on third down, but also occasionally on first or second, and he won't be afraid to run from it.
His practices have been ferocious. "The most hitting I've seen since high school," says Strong Safety Gary Fencik. Ditka's first morning workout featured full pads and a live, 30-play scrimmage, 11 against 11, with more of the same in the afternoon. "I guess it was kind of shock therapy to some people," Ditka said last week, "but I wanted to find out right away who my players were. Next week I'll cut out the contact. I'm not' a maniac."
He ended his first practice with 10 40-yard sprints. The next day there were 10 70s, then eight 110s. "An arithmetic progression," Fencik said. "I'm glad the field's only 120 yards long, from goalpost to goalpost." At the end of the last 110-yarder, 270-pound Guard Noah Jackson, his head sagging with exhaustion, turned to the crowd watching the practice and yelled, "See what y'all get for saying, 'Goodby Neill Armstrong'!"
Ditka has reinstalled the nutcracker drill, which many coaches shy away from because of its high risk—a defensive lineman going against a blocker, with a ballcarrier behind him. Payton takes his turn in this drill, along with the other running backs. He also blocks, which many of the showcase runners of the past, including Brown, didn't have to do. The first three plays of Ditka's first scrimmage featured three perfect blocks by Payton, three wipe-outs of the linebacker.