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As always, the talk is of a more diversified offense to take some of the pressure off Payton, to cut down on the 21 carries per game he's averaged for his NFL career, an output no runner except Houston's Earl Campbell, in three fewer seasons, has ever matched. Payton smiles and nods. How many times has he heard this before? "Whatever I can do to help the team," he says, but he knows that when the weather turns chilly in November and the "must" games come up, he'll get his share of ball carrying. And he prepares in his own way, a preseason workout regimen so brutal that he's burned out everyone who's tried to train with him, a training program built on torture, but one that has made his legs so strong that he has started in 95 consecutive games (he's missed only one game in his entire pro career).
"I developed my training routine going into my senior year at Jackson State," he says. "I found this sandbank by the Pearl River near my hometown, Columbia, Miss. I laid out a course of 65 yards or so. Sixty-five yards on sand is like 120 on turf, but running on sand helps you make your cuts at full speed. If you've got to come under control when you make a cut, the pursuit will catch up to you. In the sand you have to move one leg before the other is planted.
"I'll run it five times, sometimes 10, depending on how many other people are there and how hot it is. I try to pick the heat of the day to run in, but sometimes that sand'll get so hot you can't stand in one place. It'll blister your feet.
"Running alone is the toughest. You get to the point where you have to keep pushing yourself. You stop, throw up, and push yourself again. There's no one else around to feel sorry for you."
The Sand is the real workout. Less demanding is The Levee, on the Pearl River near Jackson State. The Levee requires a short sprint up a 45-degree slope.
"I've done it 20 times in a row," he said, "but usually I'll do it in sets of fives. Up one side, down the other, real short, choppy steps that make your thighs burn. I tried to run with other people, but after one or two days it was tough finding anyone. I've trained with Jeff Moore—he played for Seattle—and Ricky Patton of the 49ers and Rod Phillips who was with the Rams and Ben Williams of the Bills and guys from Jackson State. I'd go by the dorm and pick 'em up. On the second day half of them wouldn't get up and after a week I was alone."
Larry Pillers, the 49ers' defensive end, recalls going with Payton to run the stadium steps in Jackson. "It wasn't like Shea Stadium, or one of those places where the steps kind of fall back," he said. "These went straight up. I'd do it once and I was through. He'd just keep going."
"About 35 minutes on the steps, without stopping," Payton says. "Then a five-minute rest and another half hour. I'd do it until my legs were so tight I couldn't lift 'em. I guess that between May and June I'd run close to 700,000 steps."
The Sand, The Levee, The Stadium—those were Payton's off-season conditioners during his early Bear years. Then one day, a few years ago, he was driving near his home in Arlington Heights, Ill., and he saw it. The Hill. "It was in a place called Buffalo Grove," he said, "about three and a half miles from my home. It's deceiving. From a distance you see it and it doesn't look like much, but standing right next to it, it seems to go straight up.
"It used to be a land-fill area. Packed black dirt. The only way you could get up it is with cleats. You wouldn't make it in regular sneakers. I started running it with Willie McClendon, my teammate on the Bears. He'd do it every other day. I'd do it every day. Miss a day or two, and it's like starting all over again. When we first started, four times up and down and you were ready to pass out. Sometimes some high school kids would come out to run it with us. They'd throw up on the second one. At the end they'd be coming in on all fours.