"My name is Sweetness and I like to dance, Running with the football is like makin' romance." -- Walter Payton, on Super Bowl Shuffle video
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 21 -- He is Sir Walter Stiffarm and he has covered the length of nearly 200 football fields during his 11-year career with the Chicago Bears. Stop and think about that: 200 football fields.
Now, Walter Payton has only one more castle to storm: Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots in the Superdome Sunday at 5 p.m. EST. Payton admitted today that it will be nice to put the cherry atop his Everest-like statistics and that it will be nice to never again be compared to those such as the Cubs' Ernie Banks -- just another Chicago Hall of Famer who never made it to the Big One.
But he also said, "What I've accomplished in the past, I wouldn't trade to play in all of the Super Bowls."
Payton is a 5-foot-10, 202-pound powder keg who remarkably has strung together three consecutive seasons of 2,000 or more total yards just as he has spun into his second NFL decade, the time most runners turn from Rocky to front-porch rocker.
He has roared a couple thousand yards beyond former record-holder Jim Brown. Payton rushed for 100 yards or more in an NFL-record nine consecutive games this season, which bloated another of his league records, up to 73 games with at least 100 yards rushing.
As Fred Caito, Bears trainer and players confidant for 19 years, said, "We've got McMahon and Perry and a bunch of controversies, but when you get right down to it, Walter Payton has carried this team again this year."
Payton continues to block oncoming blitzers into a beaten pulp. When he carries the ball, he punishes defenders more than vice versa, exploding into them at the last instant, and not the other way around. Payton has fumbled only five times over the last two years, a stunning one fumble per 162 times touching the ball.
He is 31, with one year left on his contract and maybe two or three left in his body. Payton said he won't retire if the Bears win the Super Bowl. "I wouldn't even think of that," he said.
Payton smiled when he said, "I wouldn't mind running for about 30,000 yards. That way guys like Eric Dickerson couldn't catch me."
Even though 30,000 yards is slightly more than double his current total, no one dared laugh along with Payton because at this point, if he says it, how can you doubt him?
The Redskins' assistant general manager, Bobby Mitchell, scouted Payton at Jackson State a dozen years ago and recalled, "God gave him that perfect body. He was dominating in the sense that nobody could stop him. His vertical leap standing jump was like a man jumping on a trampoline. Even now, he's never been out of shape a day in his life."
The truth is, Payton has reached a supreme level of dominance and familiarity in his sport, so much so that he is often referred to by only his first name, out of sheer respect. Baseball has Reggie. Football has Walter.
"After we lost that conference title game at San Francisco last year, I did kind of wonder," Payton said today. "I figured it took me 10 years to get that far and I didn't know if I could last another 10."
Payton has been the diamond in the Windy City rough, producing 117 touchdowns in a career of versatility: 98 running, 11 receiving and eight passing. Payton also had a 39-yard punt once.
He missed one game in his rookie season, but not one since. He has had 140 consecutive starts. He has endured a league-record 3,371 regular-season carries and if you figure he took at least one hit each time -- never mind the second or third or fourth efforts on some runs -- you start to get the picture:
This Payton guy is pretty tough.
Caito said he has had to rush on to the field to tend to an injured Payton only twice in the running back's 11 years and neither injury was serious. Caito took two steps toward the field in this season's opener against Tampa Bay when Payton, pointing to his eye, apparently had been hurt on his first carry.
As Payton walked toward the sidelines, Caito said he knew Payton had, in truth, hurt his ribs and was decoying the defense by pointing to his eye. Caito had seen this trick from Payton before. Too cool.
"All I can really remember is that I went along with the act," Caito said. And Payton, who returned to run for 120 yards in that game, added, "If you let the defense know what's hurting, they'll go for that spot."
There is a touch of arrogance to Payton's on-field style. Sometimes he carries the ball in his outstretched hand, far from his body, the way you would carry an angry skunk out of your kitchen. Other times, he'll use that blasted stiff-arm tactic that hasn't been used so regularly since the days of Nagurski.
"It's the last alternative to getting a helmet stuck in my chest," Payton said. Can the stiff-arm be stopped? "Not if the timing of it is right," Payton said.
"I caught his stiff-arm once, under my chin," Dallas cornerback Everson Walls said. "It bent my head back and where your head goes, man, your body goes. I was able to push him out of bounds, though. You know how you do those calypso dances where you bend your body underneath a stick? That's how I got under his stiff-arm."
Walls recalled how Payton once made Dallas safety Dennis Thurman miss on an attempted tackle, then spotted Thurman's gold necklace dangling outside of his jersey after the play had ended. Payton reached over and put the necklace back in its proper place, under Thurman's jersey. It was kind of like Superman handing Lois Lane her purse after he caught her falling off a 10-story building. Too cool.
"You know that play where Refrigerator Perry was penalized for trying to pick up Walter after the play had ended and push him into the end zone?" Walls said, recalling Chicago 44, Dallas 0 on Nov. 17 at Texas Stadium. "I could have gotten Walter for a two-yard loss (at the four) on that play. But I went low at him and he went over me and I didn't even touch him. It wasn't like I used bad technique or closed my eyes. He just went straight over me. Thank God (linebacker) Eugene Lockhart was behind me and was able to stop him."
Minnesota linebacker Scott Studwell has played against Payton about 15 times over the past nine years, including the time Payton ran for a league-record 275 yards in a 1977 game. Studwell said he has learned some Payton tendencies, that he is apt to cut back when he runs to his right and that when he runs to his left he's more apt to head for the sidelines.
"A lot of times you'll have to sacrifice a good hit just to get him down," Studwell said. "A little juke by him and you could miss him completely. I've tackled him so many times. You hope and pray that one time you hit him, he won't get back up, but he always does."
It is said that Payton always has lacked breakaway speed. If we take this to be true -- and Payton admitted today that it is -- does that not make the fact that he has run for 14,860 yards even more impressive?
"Let's go back to two great runners before Walter Payton: O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown," said the Redskins' Mitchell, a Hall of Famer who played running back for a while himself. "All three of these guys had the same gait, a low shuffle, close to the ground with their knees not too high. Now, let's take a guy who ran with the high leg-lift, Gayle Sayers. How long did he last?"
"See, not that long," Mitchell said. "The guys who don't lift their legs up high can shift quicker. Sayers could change direction quickly, but he did it in the air. Those other three guys -- O.J., Brown and Payton -- did it close to the ground. Those guys were able to sustain it. If you get your legs up, you'll get cut down."
With Payton, the durability factor always has been staggering. "You know, I've been told by a lot of doctors, 'Boy, I sure would love to cut him open to see what is inside of him,' " Caito said.
Even Payton said he never expected to last this long. When he was at Jackson State, Payton looked at the NFL running backs and noticed, "Most guys would be gone in three or four years."
It wasn't long ago when Darryl Grant, Redskins defensive tackle, said, "Maybe there was some other guy, who is now unknown to man, who carried a stone for more yards. Or maybe one of those guys who carried messages from city to city covered more yardage. You know, the guys in Greece. But as far as we know, Payton's the greatest."