Nov. 20, 1977, was the greatest day a National Football League running back ever had. The Chicago Bears' third-year halfback, a flu-ridden Walter Payton, entered the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field and ran and ran and ran. On the last of his 40 carries -- a fourth-down sweep called by a coach who lacked the imagination to try anything else (even at chip-shot field-goal range, even with the game nearly over) -- he slammed and stumbled 4 yards. Payton's total for the day: 275 yards -- a couple better than O.J. Simpson's mark, and an NFL record to this day.
Payton kept running for a long time after the clock ran out on that game, but the number on the scoreboard that afternoon remained emblematic of the ironies of his career. The Bears had won, but they had scored a meager 10 points. A minor tragedy compared to Payton's death of a rare liver disease and cancer on Monday at age 45, but a tragedy nonetheless: Payton's career was spent with a team that always seemed to find a way to make the least of his enormous talents.
Payton's obituaries include most of his individual career records: He rushed for 16,726 yards (No. 1 all-time) on 3,838 carries (No. 1); gained 100 yards or more in 77 games (No. 1); gained 1,000 yards or more in 10 seasons (tied for No. 1); and gained 21,803 yards combined for rushing, receiving and returning (No. 1).
They mention his nickname, "Sweetness," which described his off-field personality far better than his playing style -- for which "Patton" might have been more fitting. They talk about the demanding workouts he designed for himself and the fact he accomplished everything without ever being the fastest or biggest or the most spectacular at his position.
They speak of his toughness: He missed just one game in his 13 seasons. He had a sprained ankle one week in his rookie season and insisted then and ever after that he could have and should have played. They mention his bravado: He never met a tackler on neutral terms, but braced himself to give at least as punishing a shot as he was about to take. And they touch on the irony of someone so rugged dying so quickly: His diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis, a bile-duct disease that can be reversed only with a liver transplant, was made just a year ago.
But while his career histories mention the twilight irony of Payton's career -- when the Bears finally made it to the Super Bowl after the 1985 season, Payton didn't score in the team's 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots, and coach Mike Ditka apologized for not giving his star a chance to get into the end zone -- Payton's disappointment seemed to be deeper than Ditka or anyone else could understand.
Getting to the title game seemed to mean a lot less, he said, because his team so thoroughly humiliated its opponents. "I don't know," he said, "maybe a 14-12 game would have meant more."
That disappointment and the thousand others that came with toiling for a team that only rarely approached his level of excellence -- the Bears were just 61-70 his first nine seasons, before a brief mid-1980s renaissance -- kept Payton from assuming the larger-than-life proportions of other football heavies.
Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns running back who held the career rushing record before Payton broke it, watched for two decades as a clutch of players approached but failed to surpass it. Disdainful of most of them, Brown apparently recognized a fellow tough guy in Payton, though Payton was reputed to be as gentle and self-effacing off-field as he was tough and single-minded on it, and pronounced him worthy of his title.
Payton once said of the rushing mark, "I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart." And he set it very high. But for all that, he seemed to have only leased his place in history. By all accounts, that place should have eventually gone to Barry Sanders, who went to work for Detroit in 1989. By last year, fans assumed that, barring a catastrophe, Sanders' games would add up to the record this year -- his 11th in the league.
Maybe Payton's heart-busting strategy worked, or maybe Sanders didn't have a heart to break. The would-be immortal quit the Lions before the season, fewer than 1,500 yards short of the mark. He was tired of playing for a team that had never been close to winning everything.
It's tempting to think that seeing the team Sanders spurned do just fine without him this year would have made the otherwise all-business Payton crack a smile. But then again, maybe part of Payton would have understood just what Sanders was thinking. "Get ready for another year of getting run into the ground? For this bunch? No thanks."
Payton's answer would have been ready: "Are you nuts? Go in there and run the next play." Or, if he could have, he might have just grabbed a helmet and headed onto the field himself. His team might have never been as good as he was, and his body failed him at the end, but his heart was never busted.