Special to ESPN.com
Perfect football weather. Perfect Chicago Bears weather.
It's October 7, 1984, and it's a special day for Chicago and the Bears. This is the day Bears running back Walter Payton can become the National Football League's all-time rushing leader at Soldier Field, breaking Jim Brown's hallowed record.
There is a buzz in the city, a special feeling in the air, as Payton heads off to the stadium to face the New Orleans Saints in the seventh game of the NFL season.
The soft-spoken gentleman is visibly uneasy as he arrives at the stadium. He is tired of the hoopla. The record is a natural progression of years of consistency, years of greatness, years of durability. For Payton, breaking the record seemed always a formality, barring injury, of course. Payton, the ultimate team player, just wants to get it over with.
''For the past three weeks, I have tried to conceal it, but there has been a lot of pressure,'' he would tell the media. ''It's been really hard to deal with. I'm glad I don't have to do this every week. There was a lot of pressure, and if you don't know how to deal with it, you can go astray.''
As the Bears enter their locker room, one after another, there is excitement, anticipation, nervousness. "I was so nervous," Payton would tell the media later, "that I had the shakes."
Payton is highly concerned on this day about the Bears, who badly need a victory. After winning their first three games, they lost the next two in a row, the last to the Dallas Cowboys, a game in which Payton gained 155 yards, leaving him 66 yards shy of the NFL record.
The Bears' demise continues on this Sunday afternoon as the Saints seize a 13-7 lead. All week long, Bears officials tried to convince Payton to agree to stop the game after breaking Brown's record and to hold a ceremony to honor the feat. But Payton refuses, saying he didn't want to disrupt the game, upset the momentum and make the moment more important than the game.
Unlike the previous game, when Payton needed 222 yards to break the record and ran for 130 in the first 30 minutes, his yards come with much more difficulty today against the Saints. He runs six times for 34 yards in the first quarter. In the second, he runs nine times for only 30 yards, including a 1-yard plunge for a TD with three seconds remaining in the first half, leaving him two yards shy of tying the record, three away from breaking it.
The second half begins with the Bears on offense, trailing 13-7. With everyone expecting quarterback Jim McMahon to simply hand the ball off to Payton, and with the crowd of 53,752 chanting, "Walter! Walter!" McMahon trips up the Saints' defense, throwing a first-down pass.
|Twenty years later, Walter Payton still holds the all-time rushing record.|
McMahon brings the Bears to the line, stares at the Saints' defense and rattles off his count. He takes the snap and pitches the ball to Payton. The crowd, already on its feet, freezes. The fans brace themselves for history.
Payton, clutching the ball, stations himself behind fullback Matt Suhey, who trails left guard Mark Bortz. Both teammates plow down several Saints, giving Payton ample room to maneuver. Payton blasts through for two yards, then for three and ultimately for a six-yard gain and a place in history.
Payton bounces right up from the grass, as he always does, shakes the hands of Suhey and Bortz and the rest of teammates, and then waves to the 53,752 fans surrounding him. The game stops. An official quickly races over to pick up the ball and hands it to Payton, who is then engulfed by his teammates and even several Saints.
Payton walks over to the Saints' sidelines and shakes the hand of Bum Phillips, the Saints coach. Then he walks the ball off to the sidelines, hands the ball to Pete Elliott of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, then asks everyone to get off the field.
"I didn't want to stop the game and stop our momentum," Payton would say later. "The thing I was thinking about most was getting the photographers off the field and to start playing again so maybe we could get a quick score. We didn't have enough points. I wanted to get everybody off the field so we could score some more.''
As the Bears return to the huddle, Payton tells his teammates, ''Forget the record. Just go for the win.''
Payton winds up with 90 yards in the second half alone, 66 in the fourth quarter, including his longest run of the day, a 25-yard burst, on the final series of the game. He ends up with 154 yards on 32 carries, giving him a career total of 12,400 yards, 88 more than Brown.
Payton also breaks Brown's record of 100-yard rushing games with the 59th of his career. Payton ends his day with a defining statement to the press: "The motivating factor for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed and those who didn't have an opportunity such as David Overstreet and Joe Delaney and Brian Piccolo [players who suffered tragedy and death] . . . . It's a tribute to them and an honor for me to bestow this honor on them."