Payton on Super Bowl XX

posted by Roger on Sunday, December 25, 2005 - link to this photo

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Sun, December 25, 2005 - 8:46 AM
Excerpt: Payton on Super Bowl XX Click here to find out more!

Note: The following is an excerpt from the book, PAYTON, released last month by Rugged Land Publishing and NFL Publishing. Click here to buy the book.

The city of Chicago had been intimidated by Al Capone in the twenties and ruled by Richard E. Daley in the sixties and seventies, but it wasn't owned by one man outright until the eighties. In 1984, Chicago was Walter Payton's. The kings and emperors that shaped the destinies of ancient cities had always been dreamers. Walter Payton was no different. The dream he shared with his adopted city was a vision of victory against the rest of the NFL and against the tide of history itself.
Walter Payton
Walter Payton

* Twentieth anniversary special on the Chicago Bears' championship season to air Dec. 25 at 3:30-4:30 p.m. ET on FOX
* Excerpt: Clearing the Path
* Video: The story of the 1985 Chicago Bears

Training camp in the summer of 1985 saw the Bears operating at a door-kicking level of confidence no one had ever seen before. Reporters and well-wishers overran practices. Jim McMahon sported a Mohawk, and Chicago's '85 first-round draft pick, a gigantic defensive tackle from Clemson University nicknamed the Refrigerator, was getting pumped for quotes and photos. Chicago's Junkyard Dog defense was declared heir to the famed Monsters of the Midway defensive line of Dick Butkus's day. For the national sports media, it looked as if the Bears were the team to beat in '85. And for Chicago's championship-starved fans, it was almost too good to be true.

As always, Walter Payton used training camp to recharge his batteries after another impossibly grueling solo off-season workout schedule. Payton came down from the Hill in Arlington Heights mindful of the year 1985 could become. He knew he wasn't going to be working by himself anymore-he had a team that was ready to win. Payton was ready to play and ready to lead. "For so many years I was by myself, and then finally, for the first time, I had these guys saying, 'Hold on, I'm gonna lift this arm, and I'm gonna lift that arm, and I'm gonna help you up.' We all pulled together as a team. We all worked together. We were the perfect unit, and that is the reason. The myriad personalities were a perfect combination to just make it right. We all had mutual respect, and we all felt like every guy was giving 110 percent-every practice and every game."

In Payton's mind, the remaining hurdle the Bears needed to clear for the championship was simply a matter of focus. Payton had dreamed big and seen his dreams become a reality. The Bears as a team could do the same, but only if they shared that one vision as a team. As the season began, Payton's concentration narrowed and intensified. And it spread to his teammates. "During that season especially, I saw Walter having focus," Mike Singletary explains, "I think it was the season where he really began to vocalize and verbalize a little bit more of what he felt. For the first time, he began to speak, he began to talk in the huddle, he began to talk at practice and he began to talk before the game. 'Hey,' he'd say, 'let's go out there and do what we have to do.' I think everybody looked at him and said, 'Wow, this guy is really serious about this. This is it. We can really do it. Walter believes we can do it.'" Matt Suhey felt it too. "Walter helped that team feel free to express itself," he says. "Everyone felt that if Walter can do it, then I can let myself show a little."

They began 1985 with a come-from-behind win against Tampa Bay, then romped for their next seven games and cleared the first half of '85 with a perfect 8-0 record. Payton and William "The Fridge" Perry formed an offensive symbiosis during the Bears' 21-7 pounding of Green Bay. When Ditka wasn't using Perry for short yardage breakthroughs, Payton was free to use him as a battering ram. Payton's power and Perry's size were a lethal combination.

In the second half, the Bears' momentum and the fans' postseason anticipation grew to outrageous proportions. The Bears were a bona fide national sensation. Everywhere they went they were known by name. "That team was really a great group," remembers Connie Payton. "They were fun to watch and had so much personality and character. You just don't see that anymore. You fell in love with everyone on the team. They were all so much fun. It was amazing how it all kind of took off. They were America's team."

But the Bears hadn't gotten to the threshold of another Super Bowl on personality. The players all had grit to spare, and the coaches, Mike Ditka and defensive coach Buddy Ryan, were ace tacticians and stern taskmasters. It wasn't an easy road. In any season tension was a given, and in a winning season, with so much at stake, the pressure was relentless. But Payton, as always, kept the team's sights on winning, not on each other. "He wasn't just the best player on the field, he was the best leader off of it," remembers Matt Suhey. "That team would have exploded had there not been Walter there to keep it together, especially because there was friction from the coaching staff. All the chemicals were there for an explosion, and Walter proved he could instead turn it into the right mix. That was maybe his most important role on that team."

Read what made Walter Payton so great in the book, PAYTON.
Read what made Walter Payton so great in the book, PAYTON.
Any superstitious fear of cursing their postseason prospects by speaking of them outright was long gone. The Bears talked up the Super Bowl openly. And not only did they talk about it, they sang about it. The day after their only loss of the season, a handful of team members met to record a song for charity called "The Super Bowl Shuffle." In the video, the Bears shift their feet uneasily in the studio, like boys in an unfamiliar neighborhood, as they chant:

We are the Bears' shuffling crew.
Shufflin' on down, doing it for you.
We're not here to start no trouble,
We're just here to do the Super Bowl shuffle.

It was a sensation. "The Super Bowl Shuffle" made folk heroes out of the team and even charted in the Billboard Top Fifty. Payton loved it. "This is the kind of stuff the guys do behind closed doors," Walter said to the cameraman. "In the bathroom when nobody's there, or in the house when everybody else is gone." In the video's outtakes, Sweetness clowned around and kissed McMahon on the cheek. A Soul Train veteran, Payton pulled rank and cheerfully declared Singletary's team choreography "third-grade level." Each featured Bear star took a verse. Walter Payton was first up, appropriately, and every word he sang was true.

Well, they call me Sweetness, and I like to dance.
Runnin' the ball is like makin' romance.
We've had the goal since training camp
To give Chicago a Super Bowl champ.
And we're not doin' this because we're greedy;
The Bears are doin' it to feed the needy.
We didn't come here to look for trouble,
We just came here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle.

The carnival atmosphere that descended as the Bears and New England Patriots converged on New Orleans the week before Super Bowl XX was unprecedented. Chicago's rock-star swagger was a perfect fit for New Orleans, and the team partied late and trained early. Jim McMahon, who'd had no trouble generating headlines in the regular season, mooned the press. Through it all, Walter Payton remained what he'd been all season and for the nine seasons before-a stabilizing influence and the conscience of the team. It was a circus, but they were there to play under the big top on January 26, 1986. It would become a day of team triumph for the Bears that remains in the record books. And it would be a day of both pride and disappointment for Walter Payton.

The Bears wiped the field with the Pats, 46-10. But there was one very conspicuous exception to Chicago's scoring free-for-all. The team's beloved captain, their inspiration, their class cutup who had sweated, bled and led from the front every time, hadn't been given the opportunity to score a touchdown himself. Payton was the Bears' sacrificial offering. He'd single-handedly distracted the Patriots' defense so completely-he still managed to gain sixty-one yards-that it freed up the rest of his team's offense to make Super Bowl XX the scoring freak show it became. By being the living legend that he was, by having taken the game to the Patriots and every other team the Bears had faced for a decade, Payton had sealed his fate. He was so good at his job that his opponents expended themselves trying to stop only him from doing it. By putting a muzzle on Payton, New England unleashed the rest of his team. Chicago's gladiator willingly fell on his own sword, taking hit after hit after hit with the abiding dignity that he'd demonstrated for ten straight years with the Bears. "I knew I was going to be a decoy today," Payton said after the game, "and I was prepared for it." His teammates were ensured a victory worthy of his sacrifice.

"It would have been great to score one," Payton later said. "In the days and weeks after the game, yes, I was bothered by it. But I was blessed to have parents who instilled in me that things happen for a reason. You may not understand it when it first happens, and it might not be something that you're going to be happy about, but down the line there will come a time when it will be shown to you."

Jim McMahon confessed, "On the touchdown that I scored, it was a play designed for Walter, but the truth is I don't think anyone recognized it during the game. I know I didn't." Mike Ditka agreed. "I really didn't realize it. I never thought about the individual thing so much," he later admitted. "That was stupid on my part." Ditka's coaching intensity was notorious-he'd once broken his hand punching a blackboard to emphasize a point. He had been focusing on the game, on the win, not on the individual players. That was his job, and he got it done just as well as Payton got his own job done. But the omission of a Payton touchdown troubled Ditka for decades: "That was probably the most disturbing thing in my career. That killed me. If I had one thing to do over again, I would make sure Payton took the ball into the end zone. I loved him; I had great respect for him. The only thing that really ever hurt me was when he didn't score in the Super Bowl." McMahon harbors a similar feeling about Payton's scoreless day in New Orleans. "He had played for so long, and he had been the Chicago Bears for so many years," McMahon explains. "It hurt me not seeing him score a touchdown."

more photos in *OLDE SCHOOL FOOTBALL*