When you are Walter Payton and you have climbed every mountain in sight, there's only one thing left to do.

Buy a mountain of your own.

"It's my dream to own an NFL franchise," Payton said during a break at the Chicago Bears' training camp. "I've accomplished everything I can accomplish at this {player} level. I want to take that next step and make my mark there."

No one has worked his way from player to owner in the NFL since Bears founder George Halas in the 1920s. Payton hopes to do it by 1990, the year the NFL expects to add two expansion teams.

That's moving pretty fast, even for the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

Payton has a contract to play this season, his 13th, with the Bears. He is expected to retire when the season ends, but that doesn't leave much time to put a new franchise together.

Or does it?

"We're working on it now," Payton said. "This {idea} didn't just come to me. I've talked about it before but people didn't take me seriously."

They are taking Payton seriously now. In May, Payton and his agent, Bud Holmes, met with Commissioner Pete Rozelle to ask about getting a piece of the expansion action. This summer, Payton announced that if he gets his team, he would like to hire either Mike Ditka or Johnny Roland as head coach. "Whichever one was available," Payton said.

He likes Ditka's toughness and no-nonsense approach. He likes Roland's ability to relate and motivate players. Payton has worked, and won, with both men in Chicago.

If Payton hired Roland, the Bears' offensive backfield coach, it would mean the NFL's first black owner had hired the league's first black head coach.

"It would not be a racial thing," Payton said. "Color has nothing to do with it."

The color of money, of course, has everything to do with NFL ownership. Norman Braman spent $70 million for the Eagles in 1985. The New Orleans Saints were sold the same year for $64 million.

Most players -- even the great ones -- can't make the cut in that financial league. Payton could be an exception.

He estimates his net worth at $16 million. He owns four night clubs in the Chicago area with plans to open seven more around the country, including Hawaii. Payton's projected annual income from the clubs alone is $1.3 million.

His contract with the Bears will pay him a $685,000 base salary this season and $240,000 a year for life through an annuity. And, oh yes, two investors have approached Payton, each offering to kick in $70 million toward the purchase of an NFL team.

"The deal can be done, I'm confident of that," said Payton, who will insist on holding the majority interest. "It's just a question of working out the details.

"I was approached by some people in London who wanted to start a pro football league there. I thought about it, then I asked myself why should I go abroad to fulfill a dream I had here all my life?

"I've never been a guy to 'settle' for things," Payton said. "I'm not going to change now. I'm a goal-oriented person and this is my goal."

It still is just that: a goal. Nothing has been signed, Rozelle did not make any promises, no sites have been picked for the two new teams.

But Payton apparently has the capital to put his dream together and, what's more, he has the enthusiastic backing of the other owners.

Cleveland president Art Modell sees Payton's bid as a giant step forward for the NFL. This is a league in which 60 percent of the players are black but none of the owners or head coaches are.

"I can't think of anything more dramatic for blacks in sports than to assume a minority or majority ownership," Modell told USA Today. "So the fact that Walter Payton has expressed interest in owning a team someplace, sometime, is exciting."

This all presumes Payton, now 33, will be retired as a player by 1990. He has not flatly declared this season will be his last. He has dropped several broad hints but he keeps pointing out "nothing is final."

Payton claims he could play another three seasons: his 5-foot-11, 200-pound body is still sound. His Chicago teammates refuse to believe he is leaving. "He's got a hundred years left," linebacker Otis Wilson said.

But how much more can Payton, the halfback, achieve? What's left?

He holds eight NFL records including the all-time rushing mark of 16,193 yards. Last season he tied Jim Brown's record for rushing touchdowns at 106, and can break it this season. He has his ring from Super Bowl XX. His place in league history is secure.

With Ditka moving young Neal Anderson in to split time at halfback, the phasing-out of the legend is under way.

"I think it will be fun to be an executive," Payton said. "Maybe as much fun as playing. I have my own ideas of how a franchise should be run. I'm anxious to try them out, see how they work."

"How would you run things?" someone asked.

Payton smiled. "Different than here," he said.

The Bears have an on-going feud between president Mike McCaskey and Ditka. It was this power struggle that contributed to general manager Jerry Vainisi, a Ditka ally, being released after last season.

Most players, with the exception of quarterback Jim McMahon, won't talk about it, but they agree it is a distraction. As an owner, Payton said he will stress teamwork in the front office. He says there's no place for dueling egos.

"I've been around the game a long time," Payton said. "I think I've learned a few things. I understand what a player wants from management. Commitment, consistency, communication.

"I could bring that to the owner's role. I'd work with the players. I'd tell them, 'Hey, I understand your position. If you need to talk, my door is open.'

"I'd like for them to look on me as a friend."

Might Payton's empathy for the guys in the trenches make him a soft touch at the bargaining table?

"No, I'll be a tough negotiator," Payton said. "I have a good idea of what a player is worth and what's fair. I worked for my money. I'll expect those players to work, too.

"I've been a competitor all my life. I'll be a competitor as an executive, too. The only difference is I won't be as sore on Mondays."