CHICAGO -- The final time Walter Payton touched the ball in the National Football League, he caught a short, desperate, fourth-down dump pass from Jim McMahon, and headed up the right side of Soldier Field until Barry Wilburn and Brian Davis forced him, tumbling, out of bounds.
Payton gained seven yards.
He needed eight.
The ball went over to the Washington Redskins, who had only to snap it once to win the game. And Payton walked slowly all the way across the field to the familiar Chicago Bears bench, where he sat, still as a stone, his hands to his head. Long after the game ended Payton was still there, his deep blue helmet glistening in the unforgiving afternoon sun.
In his last game -- his most productive game of his last season -- he was the last player to leave the field. He hadn't begun to wave and already it was a long, long goodbye. Some fans gathered near him chanting, "Walter! Walter! Walter!" And if Payton felt warmed hearing that one more time, he kept it a secret. He didn't look up as the camera crews flocked around. Alone on the bench, vulnerable and forlorn, the superstar sits and contemplates the rest of his days. It made a terrific photo opportunity.
The leading rusher in the history of the NFL gained 85 more yards Sunday, 74 in the first half. For a while it seemed like Walter Payton had found a magic way not just to stop time, but to turn it backwards to those days when he was a high-stepping kid who could shake a leg and leave you tackling nothing but air. Fifteen yards the first time he carried the ball, and seven on the next play to set up Chicago's first score. Then, in the Bears' second touchdown drive, 15 on a third-and-10 draw, and seven on a third-and-five draw. Five more on a third-and-two to keep a major drive alive in the final period. If Jim McMahon doesn't throw that interception to Barry Wilburn two plays later, maybe it's Payton getting carried off the field in exaltation, instead of sitting there in the cold waiting for history to claim him.
Slowly, Payton got up, and slowly, he walked back to the clubhouse, where he repeated the ceremony of silence. A clubhouse boy cleared a path and Payton swept in like Garbo. Helmet on, eyes closed, Payton slumped dramatically against his locker, his body language and wounded expression remarkably evocative of Michael Jackson's on the subway in the "Bad" video. He held that pose for 10 more minutes, occasionally opening his eyes and dreamily picking at loose strands from his uniform gloves.
He sat like that so long that a teammate, Calvin Thomas, leaned over concerned and asked, "You okay?"
"Yeah, fine," Payton said in that velvety voice. Smiling finally, Payton explained, "I'm just taking my time taking the uniform off. This is the last time. I just want to enjoy it, I guess."
And theatrically, like a great diva holds an impossibly high note, Payton began peeling the uniform off. First, the helmet. Then the jersey. Then the shoulder pads, the shoes, the socks. He reached inside his pants for a vintage thigh pad, and tossed it gently to Gary Haeger, a clubhouse boy who'd folded Payton's jersey as one might fold a flag. "Wore it all through my career," Payton said, fondly reminiscing about the thigh pad. "Three years high school, four years college, 13 years in the pros."
This wasn't the way Payton envisioned it ending. He'd talked about capping the bottle out in San Diego at the Super Bowl. Where's the justice in having your best day of the season and still losing? At times he seemed at a loss to know what to say to his teammates. As Thomas left the clubhouse, Payton grabbed his hand and started to speak, but stopped. He spotted Gary Fencik, and called out jovially, "Hey, Gary, I'll get with you tomorrow." And when Fencik kidded him about failing to get the first down on the last play, saying, "I still like you, Walter," Payton was nonplussed. At one point he said to Thomas Sanders, "Don't leave." But when Sanders looked at him to ask why, Payton's stare was blank. There was so much to say to so many. But what? And when?
Payton showered, and then for the final time in his NFL career reached into his locker for his clothes. First, he put on a sleeveless undershirt, then his briefs. Turning self-consciously to face the crowd of reporters, the aptly-named Sweetness sprayed some pricey cologne in their direction. "Obsession," he said for posterity.
"Walter!" someone with a microphone called out.
Payton smirked. Half-kiddingly he remarked, "Thirteen years, and I still haven't earned the right to be called Mr. Payton. Just Walter."
Surveying the crowd, Payton spotted Bill Gleason, the very veteran Chicago columnist. "You going to miss me?" Gleason asked.
"You going to miss me?" Payton countered with a smile.
"Absolutely," Gleason said. Then, sweeping his hand to encompass the full measure of the clubhouse and all it connotes to an athlete, Gleason asked, "You going to miss this?"
"Not too bad," Payton said. "I'll miss you."
"What I'll remember most," Gleason said kindly, "is how much fun you were."
Payton sat down and started pulling on his socks. Looking appreciatively into Gleason's face, he said, "That's the main reason I was playing. It was fun."