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1985 Bears Coverage: Recognition? Payton ducks the limelight

Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Recognition? Payton ducks the limelight

Ron Rapoport

Originally published Jan. 23, 1986

The stage was set for Walter Payton.

The microphone had been tested, the audience was assembled, the cameras were ready to roll.

His goal had been reached. He was in the Super Bowl at last. And now the time had come to tell the world just how much it meant to him.

There was just one problem, however. Payton wasn’t there.

Disdaining the formal setting of a ballroom auditorium, Payton had slipped into a large room with the rest of his teammates and plopped down inconspicuously at a table.

Let Mike Ditka have the platform and the podium and the raised hands from the massed questioners asking to be recognized. Let Jim McMahon follow him there.

If you wanted to talk to Walter Payton yesterday, you would find him all but hidden in the company of his teammates.

He was only being true to himself in this. If Payton is the most durable of running backs, he is also the most constant of enigmas. And if we do not expect the first of these factors to change between now and Sunday, why should we look for any alteration in the second?

So if yesterday was a time for Payton to repeat his charge that he has been overlooked by the press and public during his 11 years in the National Football League, it was also a time for him to give some evidence of why this might be so.

You do not set things up for Payton. You do not arrange things in advance. If you want him, you will have to hunt for him and take your chances as to whether you can bring him down or whether you will find yourself bowled over and left in the dirt like just another linebacker who didn’t have both feet planted.

But Payton was sitting still now and his audience had quickly shifted locales. And it did not take long for the discussion to get around to the disparity between Payton, the greatest blocking-catching-throwing-running back the world has ever known, and Payton, the man who is so hard to get to know.

“You guys go with what’s hot,” he said. “You look at a guy if he’s consistent and say he’s going to be around so you go with the new guy.”

Told he sounded upset about this, Payton said, “It is discouraging and it is disheartening because you perform well for so many years and it gets overlooked. Then your team does well and you get awards. You look back and say, `What about ’77 and ’78 and ’80?’

“If you look at it from that standpoint, that means life isn’t fair. If you reach a level of excellence and you don’t get recognition, what’s to motivate you? What keeps you going?”

Answer your own question, he was asked. What keeps you going?

“I took the negative and turned around and made it a positive,” he said.

Positive? Good Lord, yes. He is 31 now, with close to 3,500 carries and more than 400 pass receptions and who knows how many blocks delivered and pileups trapped in?

Yet if he is not at the peak of his career, he is, with 1,551 yards gained rushing and 49 passes caught this season, somewhere very close to it. And that is surely a heartening thing. If the New England Patriots contain him Sunday, it will be Walter Payton they have stopped and not some aging impostor wearing his uniform.

“My goal is to go out and play as hard as I can and when it’s over with to be exhausted,” Payton said. “Mentally and physically, to have nothing left.”

Payton echoed Ditka in saying the magnitude of Sunday’s game hasn’t really penetrated up to now.

“It hasn’t hit me yet, either,” he said. “Basically, it’s just another game. We’re going through practices like we normally do.”

But perhaps this is a studied response. Asked if, in contrast to being in the Super Bowl, he could remember the lowest point of his career, he said, “Why would you want to talk about that? When you talk about it, it brings back memories. Why linger in the past?”

But in the bad old days, somebody persisted, did he ever think he might never be in a Super Bowl?

“You always think that at the end of each year when you miss the playoffs and you’re sitting at home,” he said. “You always get that idea, but it’s not something you think long and hard about. How far you retrogress in the past, the more dim the future’s going to be.”

Payton stepped gingerly into the acupuncture controversy that has surrounded Jim McMahon this week when he revealed he had received similar treatments himself a few weeks ago.

“I have a phobia about needles,” he said. “I can’t stand nothing in me. But it didn’t hurt and it did help me. Regardless if it can do any good or not, if McMahon thinks it can then nine times out of 10 it helps.”

Bear president Michael McCaskey agreed with this when he said, “If the players think it works, then it works. Medical evidence suggests acupuncture has about as much effect as a placebo. So our secret weapon in the Super Bowl is the placebo effect. This has probably become the most important part of our effort – the needle man and the placebo effect.”

But for all the nuttiness this week of Super Bowl nothingness provides, it is not a series of constant delights for Payton. It has not encouraged him to reveal more of himself and it has not gotten him tickets.

“I tried to get four extra tickets and I couldn’t,” said Payton, who quickly ran through his allotment of 20. “Can you believe it? For a guy who’s been in the league 11 years and is only 80 miles from his hometown, that’s not enough. I had to spend $500 apiece for four more.”