Football 101: No. 7, Walter Payton
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Before we get into the greatness of Walter Payton — probably the most complete football player of them all — we should probably take a couple of minutes to look back at the travesty that was Super Bowl XX.
Yes, that was the Super Bowl featuring the famed ’85 Bears, the Shuffling Crew. They beat the Patriots 46-10 to complete one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history. They went 15-1 during the season. They shut out the Giants and then the Rams in the playoffs. That’s a team that only grows in memory, especially because it has been a pretty tough 40 or so years for the Bears since then.
The way I always looked at that season was as a recompense to Walter Payton for all that he had done. Payton was 31 years old that year and he was already the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, having broken Jim Brown’s record in ’84. He’d suffered for the Bears, taken countless hits for the Bears, run up a million training hills for the Bears, leaped head first over defensive linemen for the Bears, played behind shaky offensive lines for the Bears.
Jim Brown has never forgotten the first time he watched Payton play.
“I’d never heard of him,” Brown said. “And he fought for every inch. He twisted and turned and knocked guys over, went around them and accelerated. And I said: Oh my goodness, what kind of animal is this? What kind of guy is this? All those moves. All that strength and tenacity. That was it, I didn’t have to see any more.”
When you impress JIM BROWN, you have done something.
Payton played that way every game, every year. The Bears were usually terrible, but he was always breathtaking. His 1977 MVP season, it can be argued, was the greatest season an individual ever had. And, at the same time, it was pretty typical Walter Payton. It wasn’t just that he ran for 1,842 yards in 14 games and scored a league-leading 16 touchdowns and averaged an absurd 5.5 yards per carry. It was that he did it for a team without a single All-Pro lineman, a team with Bob Avellini at quarterback, a team with exactly zero other weapons.
Payton was definitely that team’s best rusher, probably that team’s best receiver, maybe that team’s best blocker and quite possibly that team’s best passer. Payton could kick, too.
His game against Minnesota in November of that year was typical. The flu racked his body. He woke up with a 102-degree fever. Then he went out there at Soldier Field and carried the 40 times for a record 275 yards. He scored the game’s only touchdown, a gorgeous one-yard run. He didn’t jump over the line, his most famous end zone maneuver, but he was just as unstoppable.
“We could have lined up offsides and put a couple more guys out there and he still would have gone in,” Minnesota’s Mark Mullaney said.
“I can’t say anything more about him that hasn’t been said before,” Vikings coach Bud Grant said. “I wish I were better at words. Then maybe I could.”
When reporters asked Payton how he did it, his answer was pure Sweetness.