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?
''It's great to have that many, but the fun was getting there,'' Payton told me in the visitors locker room at Anaheim Stadium. ''But it's over now. You go on to other things. I did want to run well against the Rams because today is my son's second birthday and I wanted to do something special for him. But I always try to do well.''
Less than five minutes later, Walter had stepped out from in front of a battery of glaring lights mounted on the top of several mini-TV cameras and headed for the showers.
''When you write about Walter Payton, tell your readers about what a complete football player he is and not just his ability as a runner,'' said Hank Kuhlmann , who coaches the Bears' backfield. ''There are a lot of guys in this league who can run. But when you rate them on the other two skills - catching passes coming out of the backfield and pass-blocking for the quarterback, they can't touch Payton.''
''I've never seen Walter loaf on a play and I've been with the Bears since 1978,'' Kuhlmann added. ''Some guys, after they've been around the league four or five years, aren't coachable anymore, but you can still work with Payton. In my opinion, he'll someday catch Jimmy Brown.''
Away from the flow of pro football's heavy traffic, Payton is one of the country's rising young businessmen. He reportedly has interests in a 26-acre shopping center; a $7 million, 200-room hotel with attached convention center; plus a Lear jet that he and his partners rent out. Then there are also several hundred acres of undeveloped timberland in northern Mississippi that Walter has in trust for his son.
''You have to be ready for the future, because nobody plays pro football forever,'' Payton said. ''Although I've still got some years left with the Bears , there's still my family to think about, and getting established in business and things like that.''
During the off-season, Walter has his own special way of keeping fit. From the time he was a college senior at Jackson State, he has regularly run barefoot through the sand during the summer near his home in Columbia, Miss. Covering 65 yards on sand, he says, is like running 130 yards on grass and it also helps improve his balance, especially when he must cut away from a would-be tackler.