CHICAGO -- Walter Payton wears a beeper into team meetings these days, just in case his secretary calls. His retirement becomes effective any Sunday now, and ready or not, here he comes.

He's probably not ready, though he won't come out and say so exactly. Not long ago, Payton, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, compared retirement to getting locked up in prison, though most inmates don't usually have annuities that pay them $240,000 a year for life. Walter Payton, inmate No. 34, does.

The other day during a news conference, he was asked if he could be lured back for another season, and he snapped: "No. This is it. And I don't think they want me back."

His team, the Chicago Bears, won't confirm or deny this, but a source said one reason they retired his uniform number a couple weeks back was to ensure he wouldn't have a change of heart. Anyway, the writing's on the wall, because Payton, who has gained 16,726 career yards, holds 10 NFL records and 23 Bears records, probably would be No. 3 on next season's halfback depth chart, behind Neal Anderson and Thomas Sanders.

So it's best that this is it, what with Anderson out with a knee injury and Sanders still a year away. The Bears, who play host to the Washington Redskins in a playoff game Sunday at Soldier Field, will start Payton.

"Yeah, he'd probably assume a lesser role next year, and he wants to go out on a top level," running backs coach Johnny Roland said the other day. "He doesn't want to be a hanger-on, so to speak."

If the Bears weren't so loaded at halfback, Payton probably would be back, but don't cry too much for him because he's also loaded. "Yeah, Walter's tight with the bucks," Roland said.

Walter Payton now has an "Inc." attached to his last name, a business that reaps millions. He owns seven nightclubs all over the country, is about to open an eighth in Honolulu and wants to be the next great race car owner, as if he didn't win enough races on third and short. He gets $20,000 per speaking engagement and his net worth is close to $16 million, which is also why he's thinking about owning an NFL team.

It would seem strange, of course, if Payton became the new owner of, say, an Oakland franchise in 1990 and still was being paid by the Bears, a minor conflict of interest. But he apparently has two investors prepared to lay down $70 million, and he will make his plea for a franchise at the March league meetings.

Asked how he'd run things, he said: "Different than here." The Bears, with all their infighting, have probably provided great on-the-job training for Payton, who lives and learns. Payton also has said his head coach will be either Roland or current Bears Coach Mike Ditka. "Whoever's available at the time," Payton has said.

Roland, for one, can't hide his pleasure, for he would become the league's first black head coach. "Let's hope {Payton} gets one, and then we'll get to that," Roland said. "I think I've got the capabilities to do it. All I need is the opportunity."

Payton has other concerns this week. He has been emotional and somewhat on edge as Sunday's game approaches, almost as if he's petrified of finality. Usually affable, he nearly turned down all interview requests this week, perhaps fearful that someone would ask him about last year's playoff fumble against the Redskins, which ruined an important scoring opportunity in the third quarter and gave Washington total momentum. Roland says the fumble ruined Payton's offseason and may have brought him back this year more determined than ever.

Unfortunately, the Bears have been almost as determined to hold him down. He began the season on a Monday night against the Giants, rushing for only 42 yards on 18 carries. From that point -- until Anderson was hurt two weeks ago -- his busiest game was 15 carries and his least busy game was four carries against the Lions, Nov. 22. At one time, he just broke down into tears, apparently ashamed of himself and the burden he thought he'd created on his teammates.

It happened while he sat by himself in a boisterous Bears locker room. Around him, players were talking about disc players and "Dynasty" actress Emma Samms, and he felt completely left out. So he bawled.

Mike Tomczak, a second-year quarterback, was the only player to come to his emotional rescue, as the others stood reticent, unsure what to make of a 33-year-old future Hall of Famer in tears. Payton and Tomczak had a heart-to-heart right then and there, in which Tomczak explained later: "It seems anytime anybody else is down, Walter is there to listen to them. But when he was down, there was nobody there."

Payton, quiet with reporters later on, explained: "Sometimes, I feel I'm the problem here. A lot of times, I feel I don't even belong here. These are feelings I never felt before. It's hard. A lot of times, I feel Matt {Suhey}, Thomas {Sanders} and Calvin {Thomas} want to play more, and if I wasn't here, it seems everybody's wish would be granted. Sometimes, I wish this year would hurry up and end, so those guys would get what they wanted."

As the Bears approached his final regular season home game against Seattle, they planned to give him a day, give him portrait of himself, invite his parents and close friends and even retire his jersey. The Bears didn't mean it maliciously, but sources said retiring the jersey was just their way of saving him the embarrassment of next season.

For old times' sake, the Bears lost on Walter Payton Day, a day that was ironically 34 degrees outside at kickoff. Seattle scored 34 points to win, and No. 34 scored twice, hurling the football into the stands each time.

Normally, giving away footballs is a $500 fine, but Joe Browne of the league office said: "This was special."

Ever since that day, though, Payton has been a livelier, happier person, partly because he's important again. Anderson got hurt that day against Seattle, and Payton again was teamed with Suhey, a legitimate blocking back. Before, Payton was paired with Anderson, who was trying to make the adjustment to fullback, though he can't block much. Anderson is a gifted runner, and the Bears were trying to find room for both, which turned out to be difficult. Payton blocked for Anderson, but Anderson couldn't successfully block for Payton.

So, it's without surprise that Payton's had his two best games (79 yards against the Seahawks, 82 yards against the Raiders) since being teamed with Suhey, a pulling guard disguised as a fullback.

"I'm not answering that," Payton said when asked if Suhey made a difference. "Doesn't matter who's in there, whether it's Neal, Suhey or Calvin or Thomas Sanders. Everybody's got to do their job, and I don't think one individual has the effect on the outcome. I think it takes everybody."

Nevertheless, the Bears don't seem overly concerned that Anderson is out of Sunday's game. And Roland has noticed that Payton is "a little more jovial. He's almost like the Walter you remember."

The Walter they remember did a great Stevie Wonder impression and was always half-serious. President Reagan called him after he broke Jim Brown's career rushing record, and Payton said: "Give my best to Nancy." Reagan, who maybe can't take a joke, put Nancy on the phone.

Payton can sing a little, too, playing drums for a band called the "Chicago Six." His favorite song to sing is "You Can't Hurry Love," which is sort of the way he looks at retirement.

Cowboys runner Tony Dorsett looks back at Payton's career and says: "He's going to be missed. He's been great for the NFL. There's some similarities to what Dr. J was to the NBA. He never had controversies, always worked extremely hard."

So who knows how he'll go out. With a long run? A fumble?

Payton predicts: "A friend of mine, Mike Adamle, said it. Three seconds left in the game; we're on the 20-yard line; we're down by one touchdown. I run the ball in for a touchdown, and we end up winning, and when I run it in, I throw the ball down and then I just fly off. I just drop the ball and 'Shooooooo!' I fly out of the stadium."

And lands wearing a business suit.