CHICAGO — He sat there, alone, ignoring the cold, ignoring the departing crowd, ignoring the scoreboard, which read Washington 21, Chicago 17. The game was over. Both teams were already inside. A frozen wind blew over Soldier Field. Walter Payton remained on the bench.
“What’s he doing?” someone whispered.
“He’s just sitting there,” someone said.
His eyes were barely visible beneath his dark blue helmet. His shoulders slumped beneath the pads. A yellow metal heater was blowing a few feet away, but he made no attempt to move closer.
“Is he OK?” someone whispered.
“He’s just sitting there,” came the answer.
In the final minute of this Chicago playoff game, on fourth down, no time-outs left, Jim McMahon, the Bears’ quarterback, had seen all of his receivers covered, and in desperation, had tossed a short pass to Payton in the flat. The Bears needed eight yards for a first down and any hope. Payton got seven.
“WAL-TER!” the fans began to yell.
He did not move, did not respond. He just sat there as fans screamed, then fell into a respectful silence. Cameramen spotted him and ran over, recording his meditation on tape.
“Is he saying anything?” someone asked.
“No. He’s just sitting there.”
For a while it seemed as if he might never leave. His head was bowed, his body limp. After 13 years, and 199 games, and more yards than any football player has ever gained, there were tears running down a grown man’s cheeks. Walter Payton did not want to go home. What is he made of?
“It’ll be a long time before we see the likes of him again,” said offensive lineman Mark Bortz, tearing off his jersey inside the Bears’ locker room.
“It’s just too bad we couldn’t get him one more game, you know?” added center Jay Hilgenberg, shaking his head.
These were his linemen talking, the men whose job was to clear holes so Payton could run for glory. They were bruised and sweaty. They had just seen their season end.
They were talking about Payton.
Finally, in he came. He found a place by his locker and curled against the wall. A mob of reporters encircled him. A locker room attendant stepped in front: “Five yards! Give him five yards to breathe!”
It may have been the first time Payton, 33, had asked for five yards in his life. Here is a guy who earned every step he took, a running back who so dazzled the sport that he defied logic. Didn’t he miss only one game in his career? One game? In 13 seasons? As a running back? What was he made out of?
Who knew? We only knew it was durable, and never stopped pumping, moving his feet, juking, twisting, thumping, and high- stepping into end zones. There were games where he raked in more than 200 yards rushing and seasons where he raked in more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and, although much of his career was spent with dismal Bears teams that worked him like a plowhorse, he finally saw his mountaintop in the 1985 season, when the Bears won the Super Bowl.
“Sweetness” they called him, a sissy moniker only tough guys can carry. No one could ever keep pace with Payton’s off-season routine (running sand hills behind his house in combat boots was only one part of that). No one ever crossed him. And now, after his final game, a huge crowd of reporters stood in a silent circle, waiting, not interrupting, as Payton, officially retired, sat with his helmet on and his eyes closed. It hasn’t hit him yet
In time, after a shower, a shave, moments with his teammates, Payton spoke. He spoke in the soft, high voice that has always contradicted his playing style. He said leaving the sport hadn’t really sunk in yet. Maybe later.
“I want to say these 13 years overall have been a lot of fun. When football stops being fun, you should stop doing it. That’s why it’s so hard to leave.
. . . The fun is still there.”
In his happiest year, when they were all Super Bowl winners, Payton was the superstar on a team full of crazies, so wild and offbeat that the country took them to heart. But that team was vanishing now. Gary Fencik, the erudite safety from Yale, was also retiring, and McMahon, the tobacco-spitting, can’t-lose quarterback, had just lost, at home, and Mike Ditka, the barking coach, was barking about “changes that need to be made.”
So maybe the time was ripe. But as we say goodby to Walter Payton, let the tapes show that on his final play, that final swing pass, he charged right into Washington’s Barry Wilburn, and would not be tackled — he wrestled, struggled, twisted and resisted until both stumbled out of bounds.
The game was lost. But he had retired the way he had always played: fighting for one more yard. In the end, only the sidelines would stop him.