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Walter Payton set single-game rushing record 37 years ago today

On Nov. 20, 1977 at Soldier Field, Walter Payton rushed for 275 yards, breaking O.J. Simpson’s single-game mark by two yards. The incomparable John Schulian, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote about the record-breaking performance in 1999:

BY JOHN SCHULIAN

There will only be a number by his name. It will tell everybody who looks in the NFL record book that he ran for 275 yards in a single game, and nobody ever ran for more. Such a pity, for what Walter Payton accomplished was poetry, even if he never used a word.

Where Jim Brown’s every slam-bang carry was a study in onomatopoeia, where Gale Sayers floated across the turf with strides as graceful as Elizabethan couplets, Payton performed in free verse. One time the little big man of the Bears would barge into the largest defensive tackle he could find, the next time he would skitter around

end like a gnat with a turbocharger. And all the befuddled Minnesota Vikings could do was react in the manner of the first critics to see e.e. cummings’ unstructured poesy.

They let Payton sail right by them. It was the last thing Payton thought he would be able to do. He had missed practice Wednesday and he could barely get through half of Thursday’s session. The team doctor blamed it on the flu; Payton’s diagnosis was “hot and cold flashes.” Whatever, he felt like death warmed over as he waited to step out into Soldier Field under a weeping dishrag sky. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it through introductions,” he said.

He didn’t fuss about it, though. It wouldn’t have been his style.

“Walter Payton is really a weird individual,” said left guard Noah Jackson, who is in his third season of blocking for him. “Not weird in a derogatory way, but weird in a respectable way. He just won’t let you get to know anything about him. When he’s not on the football field, he’s an off-to-hisself type person.”

Actually, Payton has those tendencies on the field, too. “I don’t like people talking to me during a game,” he said. “Never.” The last time anybody broke that unwritten rule was a year ago. Payton went into the season finale against Denver leading O.J. Simpson by nine yards in their duel for the league’s rushing championship. “We concentrated on proving to Walter that we were trying for him so much that we forgot about the game,” right guard Revie Sorey said. It didn’t help. First Payton was distracted, then he was injured and then he was brokenhearted. He had failed to topple Simpson.

The Bears dared not tempt their fate like that with their last best hope for the playoffs at stake Sunday. As they poleaxed Minnesota 10-7, nobody said a word to Payton about his assault on the one-game rushing record established just last Thanksgiving, when Simpson, of all people, juiced Detroit for 273 yards. Indeed, nobody was saying a word about it to any of the Bears.

“Did you set up that last run so Walter could break the record?” someone asked head coach Jack Pardee afterward.

“Did he break a record?” asked Pardee, his eyes widening in surprise.

All he cared about after Payton high-stepped 58 yards through right tackle was getting him – or anyone else, for that matter – into the end zone from the Vikings’ 9. And if the Bears couldn’t do that, then Pardee wanted them to drive as deep as possible, field goal be damned. “We didn’t think the Vikings could go 95 yards into the wind for a touchdown,” he said.

The Bears began painting them into an inescapable corner when Robin Earl, the rookie mastadon, plowed straight ahead for three yards.

Payton jacked his total for the afternoon up to 271 yards by sweeping left end for three, and, after Bob Avellini missed a handoff to him, he made amends on the next play. He didn’t get the six points he was looking for around right end, but, with Matt Blair clinging to his knees, he made one of those long, strong lunges that have become his trademark. His reward this time was a four-yard gain. And the record.

“Somebody told me that was the 40th time I carried the ball,” said Payton, who needed one more carry to set an NFL record in that department, too. “It only felt like 20.”

Payton doesn’t come closer than that to bragging, although he was tempted Sunday after realizing that the 1,404 yards he has gained in the first 10 games put him within 599 of Simpson’s one-season record of 2,003.

“How would you defense Walter Payton?” someone asked him. “I’d probably kidnap him the night before the game,” he replied, giggling.

Nobody is supposed to think he has the slightest bit of ego; now he had to prove it again. He talked about the way Earl and Jackson and Sorey had mowed down Vikings for him.

For Payton, running is intuitive. What does not come naturally for him is this business of meeting the press. For one thing, he despises the microphones with which the radio people are forever threatening to unwittingly knock out his teeth. For another thing, he wonders what can possibly come out of attempts to read his mind.

“It’s an impossible task,” he said. “I don’t think anybody could analyze me,” he said.

Those who still care to knock their heads against the wall of the Paytonian stubbornness, however, were given some tips by the great man himself. “I used to do sports interviews down in Mississippi, at Channel 3,” he said. “If you give a man some room, you get good stuff.

“But if you crowd him, he forgets what he’s thinking about.”

He was hurrying to vacate the spotlight now. He put a bandage on a gouge on his left arm. He tied his tie poorly, then buttoned his blue cardigan sweater high to cover it. One more question, one more answer, and it was if he heard a snap count. He zipped past an equipment bag, sidestepped a pair of shoulder pads, turned the corner around a row of lockers, and he was out the door. Walter Payton, the only poet running in the NFL, never said a word.