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.
Payton’s yardsticks a measure of success
Originally published Nov. 25, 1985
For all these years, Walter Payton has been like a ballet dancer working in a coal mine. Anybody could see he was an extraordinary performer, but the impact tended to be diminished by the surroundings.
During the season, Payton would gain his yards and collect his records, but just when the Super Bowl was up for grabs and people were getting interested, he would be home watching television like everybody else.
It is different now, of course, because the Bears suddenly have become the class of the league. Which is to say they suddenly have caught up to Payton.
What is fascinating about all this is the effect it has had on both parties.
Payton has responded to the scent of the Super Bowl by playing with a passion and a fierceness that is a wonder to behold. And the Bears seem to be motivated almost as much by what they can do for Payton as by what they can do for themselves.
For several weeks now, as Bear victories have been assured long before the final gun, the ritual has been the same. Payton has neared 100 yards rushing, word of the impending milestone has been flashed to the bench and the team has made certain he attains it.
Yesterday, in the Bears’ 36-0 destruction of the Atlanta Falcons, Payton gained 102 yards, thereby extending his 100-yard streak to seven games in a row and tying an NFL record. Immediately after crossing the barrier, he left the game.
“Gentlemen, as callous as I am, I’m just as determined to get him his eighth and his ninth,” said Bear coach Mike Ditka afterward. “When his name is written down, it ought to be all by itself – above the others.”
Payton took this special degree of consideration in nonchalant stride.
“Anything we have that can motivate us by bringing us closer together, we have to use,” he said.
Payton is just as blase when talking about the effect the Bears’ remarkable season is having on his own performance. On a team whose passing attack has improved immeasurably in a year, he is on track to gain 1,600 yards. But ask him about this and he gives you a gag in much the same manner he gives a defensive back a leg and then takes it away.
Tell him he seems to be running like a man possessed and he replies, “You didn’t see me when I was growing up, stealing fruit off a neighbor’s trees.”
So it is left for others to notice something special in the effort Payton is giving nowadays, in the fact that he is running with a new tenacity and determination as the Bears have risen from possibilities to pre-eminence during the season.
It is left for others to conjecture that he might have gathered strength or will or both from finally playing on a team that is worthy of him and from finally having a good chance of playing in a Super Bowl.
“Certainly, I understand his desire,” says Gary Fencik, whose 10 years in a Bear uniform are one short of Payton’s tenure. “He’s been waiting for this day a long time and it’s finally here. You only have so many years and so many chances.”
But if Payton sees nothing unusual in what he is doing, there is plenty from his supporting cast to astonish him.
`It’s scary,” he says of the fact the Bears have out scored their opponents 104-3 in their last three games. “Putting this many points on the board and shutting people out. You kind of wonder how long it’s going to last. Are we as good as we’re playing?”
In a sense, Payton is saying, it’s too easy. Every week, the Bears expect a battle and every week, they get a cakewalk.
“You watch them on films and they look good,” he said of teams such as the Falcons. “Then you get out there and you don’t know if it’s the intimidation factor or they’re conceding or what. But you look up on the scoreboard and you see 35 or 36 points. That’s what counts.”
The bulk of Payton’s yards yesterday came on a 40-yard touchdown dance down the sideline that was as breathtaking as it was improbable. Any moment, he seemed likely to step out of bounds. But he didn’t leave the playing field until, trying to keep from falling, he bumped into the wall behind the end zone.
“When he started tiptoeing down the sidelines, I thought he was just trying for a first down,” marveled quarterback Steve Fuller. “Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world would have fallen out of bounds before they had the first down.”
“He made the block and I made the cut,” Payton said, referring to the way Calvin Thomas took out the Atlanta defender poised to keep him from turning the corner. “I wasn’t really dancing that well.”
But surely something helped keep him in bounds, somebody insisted.
“I turned it all over to my Kangaroo shoes and they took over,” he said with an impish grin.
William Perry isn’t the only Bear who does endorsements, you know.
Since Payton had seen so much Bear mediocrity in his time, he seemed the right person to judge whether the team had reached its peak.
“Could you elucidate?” he asked. “What’s peak? This team’s capable of scoring 60 points. In the first half today, the offense was a little sluggish.”
Sluggish? A team that is averaging 30 points a game? Walter, you old perfectionist.
Asked if he was now allowing himself to think about the Super Bowl, Payton rolled his eyes and said, “No, not at all. It’s just like not thinking about waking up. You have to.”
The crush of notebooks and microphones bent on hearing these words of wisdom was pushing Payton farther and farther into his locker and eventually he reacted.
“Hey! Hey! One of you reporters is gay,” he shouted. “Who’s that feeling on me? I’m going to start naming names.”
If you didn’t know better, you could almost swear Walter Payton was enjoying himself.