The highest paid player in the National Football League had his hands on his hips as the clock ran out. Behind him, his team's fans were cheering, calling for the players, celebrating the first victory of the season.
Walter Payton seemed not to hear any of it. As the clock at Soldier Field hit zero Sunday, the scoreboard indicating the Bears had beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 28-17, Payton turned and began walking slowly to the locker room. Even as his teammates charged past him, trading high-fives, he kept his eyes remained fixed on the green AstroTurf, ignoring the screaming fans.
The man whose autobiography is called "Sweetness" was feeling sour. Even in the NFL, where victory is supposed to wipe out any individual sadness, Payton could not hide his unhappiness.
"I'm frustrated, I sure am," he said minutes later, dressing in world-record time. "If you were taking the pounding I'm taking, you would be frustrated too. The first week, I can understand it. But now it's the third and I'm still paying the price every time I touch the ball.
"I walk back to the huddle sometimes and my head is still ringing. I feel it, believe me. So what happens? The next play is for me. I'm paying the price every play and I don't know how much longer my body can take it. There's only so much you can take."
For the last six seasons and three games into a seventh, Walter Payton, 27, has been the Chicago Bears. He became the fourth-leading rusher in league history Sunday, when he gained 64 very tough yards in 21 carries. He has 8,628 yards in his career, trailing only Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Franco Harris. He has 42 games of 100 or more yards, more than anyone except Brown, who had 58. He is durable, having missed only one game in his pro career. He has led the National Football Conference in rushing the last five years.
Because of this, the Bears signed Payton to a contract this summer reportedly worth $1.8 million the next three years. But in three games this season, Payton has not looked like Payton. He has carried 67 times for 242 yards, an average of 3.6 yards a carry, almost a yard below his career average.
Payton's problems were apparent against the Buccaneers. The second quarterback Vince Evans handed him the ball, there seemed to be three white shirts around him. Even Neill Armstrong, the quiet, drawling Oklahoman who coaches the Bears, conceded there are inadequacies in his offensive line.
"When you see that many guys with the other colored shirts around your backs that quick, you have to believe your blocking's not what you'd like it to be," he said. "There's nothing wrong with Walter Payton. When we block well, he runs well."
As they lingered to celebrate their victory Sunday, some of the Bears could be caught stealing glances at Payton, who did not join in their exuberance and was the first player to dress and depart.
Payton is the heart and soul of this team. Those who have been around him know he occasionally turns taciturn in victory, preferring that others get the attention, and is mellow in defeat, attempting to take some of the glare off the errors of others.
"He'll be himself by Monday," said offensive guard Noah Jackson. "When you win and you don't feel like you've contributed as much as you could, that makes you mad sometimes. Walter's not used to feeling like that."
When he signed his new contract, the Bears went out of their way to make it clear Payton would carry less of the burden this year. Tough as he is, Payton is only 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds. The closer he gets to 30, the harder it will be for him to keep getting up.
"We've got to help Walter out more than we have," said fullback Matt Suhey. "When the passing game opens up some, when I catch a few or get some yards, that helps him. Before today (Sunday) we hadn't been doing that."
They did Sunday. Suhey carried 14 times for 48 yards and Evans completed 13 of 23 passes for 126 yards. Ted Marchibroda, the new offensive coordinator, even used Payton effectively as a decoy. In the third quarter, facing third and one at his own 49, Marchibroda ordered a play fake to Payton, then a quick pass over the middle to wide receiver Rickey Watts. The play was good for 33 yards and set up the winning touchdown.
None of that seemed to affect Payton, though. He was a man apart all day, sitting alone on the bench unless someone joined him.
"I have to admit I have mixed emotions," he said, snapping a gold chain around his neck. "I'm glad we won; that's what counts, obviously. But I'm not happy about what's happening with me. I can't change my running style to keep from absorbing the hits I'm taking. So, something else has to change."
"No comment." Then: "I'm as frustrated now as I've ever been since I've been in the league. If you want to know why, ask Neill."
Armstrong had no answers. "Walter is such a proud person he's bound to be frustrated if he isn't doing as well as he thinks he can," he said. "But I don't know what he's referring to. He's never been a complainer and if he's upset about something, I'll certainly ask him about it. I know he said he took a beating today. It's true. But he takes a beating in every game he plays."
Evans, Payton's close friend, was cautious when Payton's name came up. "I know he says he's getting beaten up," Evans said, choosing his words carefully. "But when you have a back like that you want to try to give him the ball whether it's running or passing. I wouldn't even want to talk about it without knowing exactly what's bothering him."
Although sometimes moody, Payton is not a whiner and he has never tried to make excuses on those rare occasions when he has not performed well. That is why his dark mood must concern the Bears. This is a rocky situation anyway, the team having gone from 10-6 in 1979 to 6-9-1 a year ago to 1-2 this season. Early on Sunday, when the Bears sputtered, the boos were loud.
Payton has long been exempt from that kind of treatment and will undoubtedly remain that way. But because of his salary, he will be watched more closely than ever this season. His departure was so swift Sunday that many in the local media missed his outburst. That will not happen again.
As he headed for the door, Payton was asked if he would request that Armstrong make changes in the offense.
"That's not my role," he said. "All I'm trying to do is stay alive."