"The most I ever did was 15 in a row. The hardest workout I ever had was a three-and-a-half-mile run from my house to The Hill, then 10 times up and down, then three and a half miles back home."
There might be faster backs in the NFL than Payton (he ran a 4.3 at Jackson State, and he says he was clocked in 4.5 at the Bears' first mini-camp this year) but it's tough to believe any of them has that kind of power in his legs—except maybe for Campbell, and he's 33 pounds heavier. It's that foundation of strength, laid in by all those torture sessions on The Hill and The Levee, that probably has saved Payton from serious injury. Not that he hasn't been banged up. In '79 he played four games with a nerve injury that made his right arm feel "like a lightning rod from time to time." He played three games with cracked ribs last year, and six games at the end of the season with a pinched nerve in his shoulder.
"I couldn't raise my hand over my head," he said. "I remember going into the Detroit game, and they threw three or four passes to me and I couldn't get my hand up to catch them." As the offense broke down in '81, as the line and the blocking became shaky and unsettled, Payton began to absorb more and more of a beating. He ran for 1,222 yards, the fewest since his rookie season, and for the first time in five years he didn't win the NFC rushing title.
After the Bears' third game, against Tampa Bay, in which he was held to 64 yards on 21 carries, he made his frustrations public. "It got to the point where there wasn't any place to go," he said. "I attacked the defense. As a result of that, I had guys who were trying to tackle me lying on the ground. I broke my shoulder pads. Look at my helmet." It was badly scarred.
A week later, after a Monday night loss to the Rams (17 carries, 45 yards), Payton was reminded that once he had given his offensive linemen gold watches after a season. "This year I'll give 'em pieces of my body," he said.
Those words are a sore point around the Bears' camp these days, from a period no one cares to be reminded of.
"It's kind of hard, but the blame's got to go somewhere, and who are you going to blame?" said 32-year-old Center Dan Neal. "All of us took a beating out there. I don't know if the problem was so much the players as the whole offensive concept. We weren't running plays to set anything up. We were running them just to run 'em. We'd call something like a tackle-trap pass but we'd never run the tackle trap."
The inevitable questions posed themselves to Payton during that gloomy period: How much can my body take? Is there a bullet with my name on it out there, the one career-ending injury?
"I thought about it last year," he said. "You play hurt, and you can't function fully, then you get more hurt, and you wonder, how much longer can it go on like this? I was depressed when I made those statements last year. You give it all you've got and still lose the game, and you're depressed. I let the linemen know I was depressed. We're still friends. I didn't apologize for the statements, and no one came over to me and apologized. If people go around apologizing to each other every time something goes wrong, they lose respect.
"The worst game I ever played in was the Washington game last year [five carries, five yards for Payton; another 24-7 loss for the Bears, who were headed for a 6-10 last-place finish in the NFC Central]. I'd get the ball and guys were just sitting in the hole. I tried to stay alive. Everywhere we looked we were getting hit. We couldn't get a thing going. It was the worst day. The worst.