Walter Payton's celebration was subdued, just the way he wanted it.

The day was gray, chilly and wet. The people who will tell their grandchildren they were there when Payton became pro football's all-time rusher truly sacrificed for it. It was the kind of day when 12,038 no-shows don't sound like many -- especially with the Cubs on television.

In the first minute of the second half of Chicago's 20-7 victory over New Orleans today, Payton slid around left end with a pitchout on a play the Bears call Toss 28 Weak. He needed two yards to break Jim Brown's record of 12,312. He gained six.

Payton bounced up as he always does, shook a few hands, waved to the 53,752 hearty souls assembled around him, gave the ball to Pete Elliott of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, then shooed people off the field.

"I didn't want to stop the game and stop our momentum," he explained later. "The thing I was thinking about was get 'em (the photographers) off the field and start playing and maybe we'll get a quick score. We didn't have enough points."

Payton, in his 10th season with the Bears, ended with 154 yards in 32 carries for a total of 12,400 yards, 88 more than Brown, who retired after the 1965 season.

"Now, we have to wait and see if Jim Brown comes out of retirement," Chicago tight end Jay Saldi said, laughing. Brown threatened he would when Franco Harris closed on the record last season.

Saldi was in the huddle when the Bears called their second play of the second half, leading, 13-7, at the time. After the record-breaking run, he watched Payton shake the hands of, among others, linebacker Jim Kovach, who tackled him, and New Orleans Coach Bum Phillips, who is a good friend.

Payton, who vetoed the Bears' idea of a family ceremony on the field, soon came back into the huddle.

"He looked relieved," Saldi said. "I think he's just happy it's over."

He is.

"I was so nervous, I couldn't use the expression because it would probably be bleeped out," he said in the locker room. "I was so nervous I had the shakes."

Payton, who also broke Brown's record of 58 100-yard rushing games with his 59th today, may have accomplished the football equivalent of Hank Aaron's 715th home run, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's passing Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA scoring list. At least that's what President Reagan told him during a phone call from Air Force One, headed for the presidential debate in Louisville, to a press tent under the stands.

"Truly, a most significant milestone," Reagan called it during the short conversation.

"Well, thank you," Payton said, "and give my best to Nancy."

Payton was silent for a moment. "Hi, how are you?" he said, when Reagan handed the phone to his wife.

They spoke for a moment, then Payton hung up. He later said, "It's a long way from Columbia, Miss., to talk to the president."

"Are you a Republican?" someone shouted when he put down the phone.

Payton: "I'm an American."

Payton, who speaks softly, had all the right answers. He ended with a statement.

"Maybe when the season is over I can reminisce, but the motivating factor for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed and for those who didn't have an opportunity such as (David) Overstreet and (Joe) Delaney and (Brian) Piccolo . . . It's a tribute to them and an honor for me to bestow this honor on them."

"He's for real," said Chicago Coach Mike Ditka, whose sigh of relief had little to do with Payton's record. The Bears (4-2) had lost two in a row before their easy victory today. Ditka said he was so concerned about the offense he considered putting in the single wing, with Payton at tailback.

"When God said, 'Make me a fullback or a halfback,' he might have said (Gale) Sayers or Brown," Ditka said. "But when God said, 'I'm going to build me the best football player,' there might be two names -- Jim Thorpe and Walter Payton." There was a football game played this day, and although its significance seemed diminished by the record chase, it did prove the Bears may be for real in the NFC.

Quarterback Jim McMahon, who has been bothered by a hairline fracture of a bone in his throwing hand, played the whole game for the first time in a month. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown, a 16-yard pass to Dennis McKinnon early in the fourth quarter.

Bob Thomas kicked two field goals -- of 48 and 46 yards -- in the first half, in which each team scored a touchdown. First, Richard Todd threw 15 yards to Wayne Wilson for a lead by the Saints late in the first half. Payton scored on a one-yard dive with three seconds left in the half.

That was the least of his accomplishments today.

In a way, Payton symbolizes the cruel fate of Chicago sports fans. They couldn't have realized, as they streamed for the exits to make it home in time for the start of the baseball game, that Payton admitted last week after leading cheers at a rally for the Cubs that he is a fan of the Mets.

But this was football, not baseball. Payton can stop standing behind forests of microphones and can get back to business as usual.

"I'm just glad," he said, "I don't have to do this every week."