CHICAGO

At the end, he was by himself but hardly alone. And in no particular hurry. Walter Payton probably never took so long to go from midfield to the end zone in his life, or enjoyed it so.

Ernie Banks never experienced such a stroll; neither did any other Cub since 1945, nor anyone from the White Sox since 1959, nor any Black Hawk since 1961, nor even any Bear since 1963.

A grand Chicagoan finally grabbed himself a glut of glory.

"Walter . . . Walter . . . Walter!"

He was at the 45 now, walking slowly. Looking straight ahead. Smiling tightly. Snowflakes sprinkled his head. Waves of affection crashed toward him, and over him.

"At last . . . been such a long time . . . Sweetness, how sweet it is . . . Waaaalterrr! . . . Hey, look over here."

He would not. This was between the 30 and the 15 and Payton, still silent, moved regally, as though his neck were riveted. Only as he walked past the goal line and into a thicket of fans did Payton suddenly hustle.

Somebody tried to grab his headband, the one with "ROZELLE" hand-stenciled on it.

Like the quarterback who had worn it during the game, Jim McMahon, and most of the other Bears, Payton is a maverick.

An old maverick.

"I wanted to take it all in," he said of that snowy saunter in Soldier Field. "Savor every moment. It's been such a long time coming."

This was Payton's day, but not for what he did during the Bears' 24-0 victory over the Rams for the NFC title. He only averaged a few feet with 18 rushing carries, although he caught seven passes for 48 yards.

Payton's place in history was being celebrated. Also the town's. Until about midway through the third quarter yesterday, Payton was another exceptional athlete seemingly cursed to play in Chicago. Perhaps the most extraordinary.

"Tomorrow never is promised to anyone," he had said at a similar moment a year ago in a game similar only because the Bears had played in it. They had lost, to the 49ers. Badly.

"Last year was hard," he said yesterday. "That (loss in the NFC championship) was the hardest thing I had to handle in my life."

All of a sudden another fresh scene on the sideline popped into his mind: when Wilber Marshall had finished running for their final touchdown, the Bears had started running toward Walter Payton. These are terrific players with a wonderful sense of themselves. They knew who to hit hard from the beginning; they knew who to hug hard near the end.

Richard Dent was among the first to arrive in Payton's arms. The fearsome pass rusher was scarcely in high school when Payton arrived with the Bears, in 1975. McMahon was next. He was starting to become competent when Payton became the most prolific rusher in NFL history in 1984.

Payton was where a grand man should be at such a time: in a warm place by the bench, slightly above the battle. Having carried the Bears for ever so long, it was fitting he could see Dent and McMahon and the others do more than their share against the Rams this once.

"They told me I'd been hangin' around for 11 years, and that it (going to the Super Bowl) had finally happened," Payton said later. "They said, 'This was for you.'

"To be a part of this, to have kindled that flame of desire and to have gotten such a tribute, I can't say enough about it."

It had been easier than nearly anyone anticipated, surely easier than Chicagoans with long memories even had dreamed it would be.

On the first play from scrimmage, Gary Fencik met the Rams' version of Payton, Eric Dickerson, and nailed him for no gain. On the third play from scrimmage, Steve McMichael and Mike Singletary clobbered Dickerson for a one-yard loss.

And so on.

Everybody knew that as Dickerson would go, so would the Rams. Where he went was down. Quickly and often. Loud and hard.

Also, the Rams' quarterback was less than ordinary. In two playoff games, Dieter Brock has barely passed for more than 100 total yards. And the wind rendered the Rams' fine special teams helpless.

The Bears were wonderful, and enjoying far more than their share of luck. With this sort of cooperation from the sporting gods, Leon Durham would have gobbled up that Padre's grounder in the 1984 National League playoffs; Tito Landrum's homer for the Orioles would have been blown back into the park against the White Sox in the AL playoffs in 1983.

Having to walk off the field so many times with gaudier stats, but in defeat, made yesterday so much better for Payton. Could he recall some of the bad times?

No.

"I can't even think about bad times right now," he said. "I don't know what a bad time is."

Neither did he quite know how to explain the exhilaration. Jim Hart, the gifted former Cardinals and Redskins quarterback now an announcer for the Bears, asked Payton to talk about the emotion of making his sport's ultimate game "for all of us who never have."

Payton responded honestly: "I don't know right now. Maybe by tomorrow." Later, he added: "It's like after you wake up from a nap. You're still dazed. Just now, I don't know how to act."

Never had Payton enjoyed being stopped after such little progress as in the fourth quarter. Time meant more to the Bears than yards at that point, and Payton hardly minded running into the arms of frustrated Rams.

"As long as they key on me and we keep winning," he said, "I'll take it. Take it anytime. 'Cause that means somebody else is open. But I was open on a lot of those passes. Nobody was on me (on that fourth-down pass that kept a touchdown drive going in the third quarter). It was fun."

Somebody asked him about his time of most fun. The answer was surprising, although he clearly had given it considerable thought.

"My time came when I reported to training camp this summer," he said. "I got there and saw the determination and drive each player on the team had. That's when I knew we'd play hard, and well."