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Sweetness runs to the record books
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 1999
It was called "Toss 28 Weak," and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon called it on the second play of the third quarter -- a pitchout to Walter Payton. He ran it to his left, behind blocks by left guard Mark Bortz and fullback Matt Suhey. It gained 6 yards.
"It was no great play. Just an average play," Bortz said later.
But it surpassed one of pro football's most hallowed records -- Jim Brown's 12,312 rushing yards.
Payton would retire after the 1987 season with 16,726 yards, a record that still stands.
As the 1999 season began, Barry Sanders was on the threshold of surpassing it -- but it appears the standard Payton set will survive at least one more year.
Payton's record-breaking run was only one of his accomplishments at Soldier Field in Chicago that day. He and Brown had shared the record of 58 games of 100 or more yards rushing. With 154 on this Sunday, Payton stood alone at 59.
And in a game in which the Bears struggled for offense much of the day, his 1-yard touchdown run with three seconds remaining in the first half gave the Bears the lead in a 20-7 victory over New Orleans.
Payton and the Bears' front office had talked about what would be done the moment Payton passed Brown, and it might have been quite a celebration had Chicago not led the Saints by only six points when he made the milestone run.
Befitting his character, Payton was more concerned about the game than any personal accolades. They could come later. He was given the ball, was congratulated by teammates and New Orleans players as well, then shook Saints coach Bum Phillips' hand and walked off the field so play could continue.
"We didn't have enough points to stop the game for longer," he said. "I wanted to get everybody off the field so we could score some more."
The anticipation, and attendant nervousness had been building as he approached the record that had stood since Brown retired after the 1965 season. "For the past three weeks I have tried to conceal it, but there has been a lot of pressure," he said then. "It's been really hard to deal with. I'm glad I don't have to do this every week."
After the game came the obligatory presidential phone call, Ronald Reagan speaking from Air Force One, and the serious celebrating. Still, Payton was unwilling just then to reflect on the moment in a career that had begun in 1975 when the Bears made the Jackson State star their No. 1 draft pick, fourth overall.
"Maybe when the season is over I can reminisce. But the motivating factor for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed, and those who didn't have the opportunity," Payton said, a reference to Brian Piccolo of the Bears, Joe Delaney of the Chiefs and David Overstreet of the Dolphins, all of whom died early in their careers. "It's a tribute to them and an honor for me to bestow the honor on them."
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