My last childhood hero died yesterday. It's a risky thing, coming face to face with the people you idolize. Sometimes it's best just to keep a safe distance. But I was lucky that the player I blindly worshiped as a boy was worthy of my enduring admiration as a man.
You start reminiscing about the life of one of the century's great athletes and the memories just flood you. The first five years of his career, I saw every game Walter Payton played. I can see every great run as if it happened yesterday. There was the one against the Chiefs when he broke eight tackles. There was the one against Buffalo when he left his feet at the 2 and landed on his head in the end zone. There were those stiff-arms, putting overgrown linebackers on their backs. There was the record-breaking 275-yard performance against the Vikings at Soldier Field. There was the way he carried the ball, with one hand, extended away from his body like he was holding a loaf of bread.
My favorite Payton game actually came against the Redskins in Chicago in the Bears' most storied season, 1985. Payton was only two years from retirement then, though he would go on to win the league's MVP award. Against the Redskins, he showed why he could be considered the greatest all-around football player of all time. That day the NFL's all-time leading rusher gained a grand total of six yards on the ground. But he threw a pass to quarterback Jim McMahon for a touchdown, and caught a touchdown pass in a 45-10 Bears victory. It was a fabulous display of football brilliance. I saw him quick kick, I saw him punt from regular punt formations. I saw him play quarterback when the Bears were sorry and no-account and had no quarterback worthy of actually playing with Walter Payton. I saw him run the best power sweeps ever, sweeter than the ones Lombardi drew up for Paul Hornung. I saw Payton, after Bears turnovers, turn into a defender and put stone-cold hits on some unsuspecting defensive back running with an interception.
I remember Payton jumping up from a tangle of bodies holding, say, his right arm as he ran off the field. We'd find out the next day that Payton had been holding his right arm to fool the vultures on the opposing defense because in reality he'd hurt his left shoulder but didn't want anybody to know.
Yesterday in New Orleans, Payton's coach on the Bears, Mike Ditka, said: "There are better runners than Walter. But he's the best football player I ever saw. At all positions, he's the best I've ever seen." Ditka, we should point out, has pretty much seen 'em all as either a player or coach in the NFL for nearly 40 years.
There was something else Ditka said about Payton that has always stuck with me. When he came to coach the Bears he said, "Walter Payton is my idol." Crusty, ornery, stompin', cussin' Mike Ditka called a guy he was about to coach his idol. When have you ever heard a coach say that about one of his players?
When a serious knee injury forced Gale Sayers to retire in 1971, I just presumed that my team would never have a shot at another running back like him in my lifetime. Sayers was so thrilling, I wouldn't sleep more than an hour or two on Saturday night, my anticipation of Sunday was so great.
You knew you were likely to see something you would never see again when Sayers took a handoff or settled under a kick. But after only 68 games, he was gone. I was 12, and figured the next great runner would go to another little boy's team.
But in 1975, Payton arrived from Jackson State. He missed a game that year because the coaches held him out, but he would never miss one again in 13 NFL seasons. Midway through 1976, Payton made us stop crying over Sayers. Okay, you wouldn't set Payton's runs to music like you would Sayers's. It's 29 years later and still nobody has run in quite the same broken field fury. But Payton had that stutter step, and it was so cool the way he'd line up his linemen, sometimes holding on to the backs of their jerseys until they were in position to throw a block. Payton relished blocking, he was consumed with punishing defenders and would launch into them to initiate the contact.
For a lot of years, the Bears weren't worth watching, but Walter Payton surely was. But over time, because men like Jim Finks, Ditka and Jerry Vanisi had great eyes for talent, the Bears built a nasty, punishing, arrogant team that would win a championship. Payton kept doing what he had always done, playing through injuries, racking up 100-yard games, knocking down defenders and then helping them up as he jumped to his feet. While the '85 Bears, for the most part, were as wild as Friday night, Payton was a civic treasure. He distanced himself from the raucousness just enough to remain the guy Ditka and I idolized.
A funny thing happened in 1984. I was 25 and covering pro football games for The Post. The Bears were becoming a force. I had to talk to Payton for a story. I'm certain I genuflected. It wasn't until after he retired, going to a Super Bowl party with him a few years ago, that I got up the nerve to tell Payton I had idolized him when I was 15, growing up on the south side of Chicago.
"You think I didn't know that the first time we talked?" he said.
Then Walter Payton put me in a headlock and began laughing maniacally. Not once in 24 years did Payton ever disappoint the boy or the man.