Commentary

A bittersweet Bears moment

Payton didn't get in the end zone in Super Bowl XX, and he wasn't happy about it

Updated: January 26, 2011, 1:53 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Editor's note: ESPNChicago.com is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Bears' dominant 1985 season and victory in Super Bowl XX. We'll have weekly features on each game from '85, video interviews with key figures, photo galleries and more.

The first thing Bill McGrane remembers is that Bears PR director Ken Valdiserri "looked terrified."

Considering it was just minutes after the Bears demolished the New England Patriots to capture Super Bowl XX, it was not exactly the expression the team's director of administration expected from his public relations man.

"Everyone was milling around and there was total jubilation," McGrane recalled, "and Kenny came up to me and said, 'We've got a problem. National television wants Walter to go on and he won't do it.'"

[+] EnlargeWalter Payton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWalter Payton had several attempts inside the red zone, but he did not score a touchdown in the Bears' Super Bowl XX triumph.
"I needed some intervention," said Valdiserri, who at 26 was in his second year with the team. "I needed someone on a senior level to convey to [Payton] how important it was to speak to the media. It caught me off guard completely."

Valdiserri led his boss around a corner and down a hall to a tiny storeroom where there, sitting on an equipment trunk, was the NFL's all-time leading rusher with tears in his eyes.

"He was stripped down to his gray T-shirt with the arms cut out, pants and his shoes, all covered with sweat with his headband still on," McGrane said, "and his eyes looked very, very angry. Here we were in with everyone celebrating and we have a guy desperately unhappy. He was glad the Bears won, happy for his teammates and the fans, but he was pissed."

The three sat in silence for several seconds.

Physically, Payton was beat up. Not just from a 16-game regular season and three games in the postseason, but specifically from a game in which the opponent focused on stopping him.

Payton may have been one of the toughest players in the annals of football, but the Patriots seemed intent on testing the theory.

"New England didn't do much that day," said McGrane, "but the one thing they did was set their defense to stop Walter. They weren't going to let him beat them and they beat the crap out of him physically. He took some ferocious hits."

For Payton, the performance was nightmarish -- a fumble on the second play of the game that was recovered by New England at the Bears' 19-yard line, leading to a field goal and a 3-0 Patriots lead. And for the day, he rushed 22 times for 61 yards, his longest gains of 7 yards on the first play from scrimmage and again in the third quarter.

Perhaps most painful for the man whose trademark was his jackknife leaps into the end zone was that Payton was stopped for a 2-yard loss on a first-and-goal from the New England 3-yard line in the first quarter, and twice the Bears went for other options at the goal line. (Payton had a total of five carries inside the 10-yard line on the day.) Jim McMahon scored from 2 yards out and then there was the touchdown that gained the most attention -- William Perry's 1-yard plunge in the third quarter.

Payton was successful as a decoy on both occasions. And with the Patriots keying on Payton, the Bears also benefited from fullback Matt Suhey's 52 yards rushing on 11 carries, including an 11-yard touchdown run, and a 24-yard pass to set up McMahon's first touchdown.

"The victory today was a credit to the city of Chicago," Suhey said after the game, "and I hope the fans are loving it. We're supposed to be the City of Big Shoulders. Well, this is a team of big shoulders, a team that works together and gets a lot of things done ...

"More than anybody else's though, this was Walter Payton's day. He deserves more credit for what happened today than anybody else on the team."

But inside the tiny storeroom, Payton was still decompressing after his first Super Bowl.

"I think it was very hard for him when [head coach Mike] Ditka put in Fridge to score the touchdown down close," McGrane said. "I think it hurt him that he had not been able to score in a Super Bowl game.

"I remember him saying 'I ain't no damn monkey on a string.' And I remember saying, 'I don't think anyone thinks that of you, Walter.' I don't remember everything else I told him but I just tried to stress how important he was to all the people on the team and to all the people watching the game and that he was the one person people would want to hear from. It took a few more minutes but he went out and did the right thing. He was a good soldier."

"It was awkward," said Valdiserri. "Here we were at the heights of the organization's success, winning the Super Bowl so handily, and Walter had tears in his eyes and was upset. I felt his disappointment was not so much not having an opportunity to carry the ball over the goal line for a touchdown when Perry got to do it, but more so, probably only gaining 61 yards and fumbling on the first series.

"It was the pinnacle of his career playing in the Super Bowl, and while certainly the team's expectations were met, I don't think his own expectations were and I think he wanted both."

After the game, Ditka said while it was "unfortunate" Payton didn't score, he and offensive coordinator Ed Hughes called the plays "best designed to score touchdowns." Since then, however, Ditka has said on many occasions that he regrets not getting Payton the ball.

Much of the frustration for Payton, McGrane theorized, was because of the buildup to the moment followed by the almost anticlimax of it all.

"Walter was in a great mood before the game," McGrane said. "I was on the bus with him and Suhey, and after we were dropped off, you had to walk the length of the field to get to our locker room. So we're walking along, the three of us, and Walter is talking the whole time about nonsense and as he's talking, he's going through Suhey's pockets and pulling Matt's shirttail out and his necktie off, just vintage Walter having fun."

McGrane and Valdiserri were concerned that Payton would regret making the wrong impression.

"We didn't want the press to see him almost vulnerable, particularly because we thought it could come off looking selfish," Valdiserri said. "He was upset he didn't score, he didn't meet his own expectations, but the team won 46-10 and here he's pouting when he should be high up on a pedestal raising the Super Bowl trophy over his head.

"I recall that we were careful in our words, yet we were firm in our conviction about the importance for him to show a good face for the press. After his career accomplishments and 11 years in the league and going through all those lean years with a one-dimensional team, his team won the Super Bowl. Bill and I did get through to him. He just needed his space and he couldn't hide his true feelings."

But 10 to 15 minutes later, they said, Payton's anger subsided and McGrane had no doubt that he got over his frustration.

"He may have had some private feelings he didn't share, but I don't remember Walter as a guy who held on to anger for a long time," he said. "A lot of people had the wrong idea, what a spoilsport he was, and I don't think that was the case at all. I just think it was a very human reaction to a very hard situation."

Valdiserri agreed.

"I don't want it to sound like his reaction was selfish because it was not," he said. "It was difficult for him that he didn't meet expectations he put out there for himself. It was a residue of his competitiveness more than anything, maybe he didn't think he did his part. I really believe it to this day."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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