LAS VEGAS — Once Walter Payton glanced at the caboose of his new fullback, crouched two paces ahead of him in a three-point stance, that signature squeal halted the Bears’ first preseason practice of 1977.
“Whoa! Timeout! Is this a [bleepin’] truck in front of me or what?!”
Robin “The Truck” Earl, fresh out of the University of Washington, and Payton would fortify their mutual respect the next offseason on the latter’s fabled hill near Buffalo Grove and Arlington Heights.
Payton donned spiked cleats, wrapping tape around them, his heels and ankles, a routine usually reserved for practices and games.
“He’d ‘spat up,’ like white stockings on a stallion,” says Earl. “He’d go up and down, 20 times. Legs become noodles, but he’d keep pouring it on. ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ A warrior.”
Earl vomited several times, but he never saw Payton puke.
“That work ethic,” says Earl. “When the good Lord decided to make a running back, he took out his chisel and made Walter Payton, 5-10½, 200 pounds of steel.”
Payton died in 1999. Two bronze plaques commemorate long-gone Payton’s Hill, on Nickol Knoll Golf Course. In 2019, Earl returned to Chicago for the Bears’ father-son golf tournament and sought a similar mound in Northbrook.
He scaled it seven times and made eight ascensions on the other side.
“I used to do 25,” says the 66-year-old Earl. “It’s near my old home. I wanted to bring back some memories.”
‘YOU SHOULD PAY ME’
In 1967, a 12-year-old Earl daydreamed of wearing a Packers uniform while watching the world champions practice in Green Bay.
Along with his parents and two brothers, he had ventured from their Idaho home to visit relatives in Milwaukee.
First stop, Chicago. They watched their first Major League Baseball game, and Ernie Banks hit two home runs. In Wisconsin, football coach-father Marvin took his ecstatic boys to Green Bay.
They collected autographs and posed for a photograph with quarterback Bart Starr and fullback Jim Taylor. On New Year’s Eve, they watched the Packers successfully defend their title against Dallas — The Ice Bowl — on TV.
During commercials, coach Marv put his sons through pushup drills.
Robin became a blue-chip recruit, targeted by Michigan, Notre Dame and 100 other programs. He picked mediocre Washington, partly so mother Luella could attend his games.
Bears’ general manager Jim Finks drafted him in the third round in 1977. At team headquarters on East Jackson, owner George Halas informed the nervous greenhorn of his $30,000 signing bonus, $10,000 in incentives and $36,500 salary.
“But, in reality, you should probably be paying me,” Halas said. “You’re going to make more money in the offseason than what the Bears will pay you.”
After his first start, he got the game ball in a victory over Kansas City. The following week, he cleared paths as Payton amassed a then-record 275 yards, against Minnesota.
Coach Mike Ditka would apologize for yanking his face mask and cursing him in a 1983 exhibition game in Buffalo. Two weeks later, however, Earl would be the last player cut before the season.
Off the field, he had a stretch running a restaurant food-supply business, and he’d do some broadcasting. He long has been involved with insurance and energy concerns.
By his third season, he says, “I was knocking down more than what the Bears were paying me.”
JILL AND THE HILL
Tanned and trim, Robin Earl strolls into the Memorial Day residential pool party, in southwest Las Vegas, wearing a sleeveless Bears T-shirt and clutching a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“Still a blue-collar dude,” he laughs.
His uneventful three-year residency here ends late next month, when a new home in Tucson, Arizona, will be finished. The twice-divorced Earl, with seven adult children and eight grandkids, is about to meet the woman of his dreams.
Jill Everhart isn’t his first online connection, just the most-compatible female he has ever met.
She lives in Phoenix, where they’ll first meet in 10 days. He takes her to dinner. Rockets and fireworks. Instead of driving back to Vegas the next day, he returns five days later.
They golf, grill steaks, attend church. He is schoolboy-giddy about relocating to Tucson because Jill will move in with him.
“She’s crazy about me, I’m crazy about her,” says Earl. “God told me, be patient. That’s my baby, my sweetheart.”
His lean physique has been a long-term project, since he saw a photo of himself, at 285 pounds, at Tucson National Golf Course in 1992. He noted the double-chin, called himself sloppy.
He quit drinking beer for four years and began diligently working out and running four miles daily. He dropped into the 240s, stayed in the 230s for 20 years.
In 2015, while living in Seattle, he discovered powder supplements Vital Reds and Power Blues. He adds chia, flax and hemp seeds to blend a large breakfast smoothie. Dinner is protein-rich.
Pounds evaporated. He vowed to stay between 202 and 206. At that pool bash, the 6-5 Earl weighed 204, his weight today. His dedicated running, he figures, offsets his Blue Ribbon yen.
Earl suffered no major football injuries and has no other issues. “Blessed,” he says. He will participate in that father-son golf tournament next month and again charge up that Northbrook hill as if he were 26.
“That’s what it’s all about. How do you think I could catch the eye of a Jill?”