Somehow running back Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears does not look like a man who has gained more than 10,000 yards in the National Football League. Charges that the Bears have always overworked Payton are not born out by the mint condition of his rock-hard 5 ft. 10 in., 204-lb. body. You get the impression that he is exactly where he wants to be, doing exactly what he wants to do.
When you talk about a man gaining 10,000 or more yards in the NFL, you are indeed talking about select company, for only three other running backs have ever done it - Jim Brown, O. J. Simpson, and Franco Harris.
Brown's nine-year NFL rushing total is 12,312 yards; Simpson gained 11,236 in 11 seasons; and Harris (who has played 11 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is still active) is now at 10,943 and counting. Franco, despite the fact that he has slowed down, still has a shot at Brown's record, but Payton, who has just completed his eighth pro year and who says he has no plans to retire, may yet turn out to be the greater threat. His career total: 10,204.
Even though he is tougher to handle than the 7-10 split in bowling, Walter has never consistently broken free for long gainers. After watching his short, choppy steps, most people would probably not agree with any description of his running that includes the word cruise.
But I maintain that he is smoother than he looks; that there is no one in the NFL right now who runs better laterally; that his secret is a low center of gravity that makes him tough to knock off his feet and eyes that seem to pick up on everything going on around him.
When Payton gained 104 yards against the Los Angeles Rams in the next-to-last game of the season to shatter the 10,000 barrier (he picked up 109 more in the Bears' finale against Tampa Bay last Sunday) there was no ego in him at all afterward. How did he feel? He felt like he always does when the Bears win - good.
But the 10,000 career yards, Walter, the 10,000 yards - what about them?