In the final year of his career, Walter Payton–the leading rusher and leading touchdown scorer in National Football League history–became a blocking back. No other single fact says so much about the uniqueness of Payton the team football player and Payton the athlete. No other great NFL running back accepted a similar role at the end of his career, perhaps because no other NFL running back could tolerate–physically or mentally–such a change. Jim Brown quit still healthy and near the height of his considerable powers as a running back, but his very retirement, when considered along with his blustery behavior ever since, indicates that he never would have stood for it either. Besides, he was never as great a blocker as Payton, not even in his prime. Other greats, such as O.J. Simpson and Gale Sayers, could not accept such a role because not only were they not Payton’s equals as blockers, they were bad blockers by any standard. Even the big, bruising, durable backs of recent years–Larry Csonka and Franco Harris–quit when their running days were over, too slow and too weakened by time to do an effective job blocking the ever-bigger, ever-faster defensive linemen and linebackers coming out of college.

No comparison exists in football, and no fair comparison exists in sport. Not only did neither Babe Ruth nor Hank Aaron become a pinch-hitting expert–a job that allows a hitter too much fun to be compared to football blocking–neither became a bunt expert. Gordie Howe never became a defensive player, covering the other team’s high scorer. Nor has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turned into a defensive player or rebounding specialist; in fact, Kareem’s considerably diminished scoring ability continues to overshadow his ability to hit the boards. Wilt Chamberlain never became a mere defensive, rebounding player because–like Brown–he never allowed his talent to diminish on the floor; he quit before it showed too much. Walter Payton–his speed and quickness fading, but still a capable runner and able pass receiver–became a blocking back for his young replacement, Neal Anderson, in the final year of his career. And he did it well, too–as if that needed to be pointed out.

Payton’s achievements are too numerous to mention here; they’re better suited for the dailies, and they could be found there all last week–laundry lists of 100-yard games; NFL records categorized by career, year, and game; college and pro rushing and receiving records, by year, average, and career. It was as if the easiest way to pin Payton down was to simply look at the record. Payton’s record is impressive–no other football player has amassed anything quite like it, and it should be a while before anyone does–but the meaning of Payton the player remains elusive. Great players, we believe, in these media-dominated days, are loaded down with meaning, and somehow manage to perform well despite this handicap. Muhammad Ali for instance, was crippled with meaning for three years, and when he came back he was handicapped but regained and even enriched his stature because of it. Team sports, however, give better examples. In the early days of their careers, Willie Mays meant more than Hank Aaron. Mays was a player who could do it all, who was not only talented but beautiful to watch. Aaron was, in the end, equally meaningful, but it came only after several consistent seasons in which he neared Babe Ruth. Aaron, in his sometimes bitter, determined pursuit of Ruth’s 714 homers, came to represent a struggle–not only for the right to play on the same field, but for complete recognition as an equal, racially and competitively. Jim Brown is easily cast in the same light; there is an almost bitter determination in his carriage on old highlight tapes, a refusal to be humbled that is not merely typical–certainly not typical–of the times, but a function of his time. Brown in the 60s and Aaron in the 70s were still members of a race struggling for equality; even in these seemingly liberal times, they were still seen as black men. If Payton’s meaning is more elusive, it is, perhaps again, a function of the times.

Color has little to do with Payton the Chicago athlete. (It may have much to do with Payton’s motivation, but if it does he has been fairly quiet about it, and that too means something.) He was, simply, the best runner of his generation, and I would say the best running back of all time. He pursued the records of another black man, and in that he was, perhaps, the hero of the new generation, where skin color is an incidental fact.

To go outside sport for a moment, not only is Payton not a Spike Lee, making greatness in an idiom almost offensively his, he is no Bill Cosby, making something so white he beats the whites at their own game and demands recognition not only as an equal but, sometimes, as a superior. These considerations–offensive as they are–play no part in the Payton persona. He simply set out to be the best, and was recognized as the best once he reached that pinnacle. What black sports figure reached the top of his profession without this excess baggage, this handicap, that every black from Jack Johnson through Jackie Robinson through Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, and Mike Tyson. has carried? Which is great, for Payton and for everyone, except that pointing it out almost undoes the good.

Walter Payton demands to be accepted on his own terms, as a player, as an athlete, and as a human being. This last part, rich as it is, is the essential meaning of Payton the NFL running back. A decade ago, Payton was simply the good guy on the losing team, the sort of athlete who makes being a sports fan in Chicago tolerable and, in fact, enjoyable–another Ernie Banks, only without Banks’s humble reaction to the baggage he carried. As Payton persisted and the team got better, Payton’s stature grew, but what has remained steady throughout the years is his desire to play well at all facets of the game. Payton was the best running back of his generation and the best, at this point, in history. All right. Yet he was also an incredible pass receiver and blocker, dangerous passer–both on the halfback option and as the Bears’ emergency quarterback–and explosive kick returner (until it was considered too dangerous). The list goes on, almost as long in what he could do on the football field as those long data sheets in the newspapers about what he did do. He was one of those players–like Ryne Sandberg–who takes pleasure in doing everything precisely and well within the framework of the team. This makes him, by definition, a giving (but not selfless; his sense of self is, in fact, complete) player, a team player. Now, if Ryne Sandberg ends his career with 800 home runs or 1,000 stolen bases, he might approach Payton’s place in the pantheon. And if anyone goes looking for the next Walter Payton, they had better look not only for speed and quickness and energy and durability (all those often-recited intangibles that have been so unsatisfactory in explaining Payton’s greatness), but maybe, just maybe, someone who has all those attributes and–along with them–a bachelor’s degree in special education.

For Payton’s last home game, that old softy, coach Mike Ditka, organized a game plan in which he figured prominently. For the one game, Anderson became the blocking back and Payton assumed the primary rushing role. Anderson did his part too well. He was the dark background that Payton shone against; he gave the ball up to the Seattle Seahawks’ Brian Bosworth in the third quarter, injuring his knee on the same play. Payton, meanwhile, kept rolling. He dashed through large holes in the line in the first half, and if he was a step slower than he was, say, five or ten years ago, he remained as nimble as ever, picking his way through the defense the way a barefoot bachelor picks his way across his clothes-strewn bedroom.

The Bears looked flat–as they have in recent weeks, and as they usually look when Jim McMahon is on the bench, as he was in this game–but, with the help of an injudicious time-out called by the Seahawks, they rallied to tie the score at seven just before halftime. The Boz returned Anderson’s fumble to the goal line in the third quarter, and the Seahawks then took a 14-7 lead, but Payton led the Bears back with a pair of beautiful runs, the second for a touchdown. Having moved the ball down to the Seahawks’ 20-yard line, the Bears assumed the I formation (that old, tired war-horse, a homage by Ditka to Payton’s glory days), and Payton made a beautiful, determined run to the five. One play later, he took the ball in for the score.

The Seahawks, however, came back with a beautiful play. In their own territory, quarterback Dave Krieg faked a pitch on a sweep right and dropped deep. All movement pointed to a deep pass to the right side of the field. He tossed back to left, however, where a little screen was set up in front of fullback John L. Williams, who–with the aid of a great Steve Largent block on Wilber Marshall–made a run all the way for the touchdown. Two Bears turnovers later, the Seahawks led 27-14.

The Bears drove again, and this time Payton scored on another homage to himself, the off-tackle run, again out of the I formation. He had scored in both end zones, the Bears had the momentum, and a few minutes later they were on their way to the go-ahead touchdown.

A week and a half ago, when the Bears lost to the San Francisco 49ers, the network commentators said early in the game that the battle would be won or lost on the ‘Niners’ offensive line. The original battle, perhaps, but the bigger battle was to keep the Niners off the scoreboard or within reach, because McMahon’s replacement, Mike Tomczak, is not a good come-from-behind quarterback, and an emphasis on the pass would show off the deficiencies of Jimbo Covert’s replacement, tackle Paul Blair, an able run-blocker from Oklahoma who approaches pass-blocking the way a drawling Okie approaches a foreign language. Against the ‘Niners, the Bears were beaten 41-0, as Tomczak threw four interceptions, and against the Seahawks Tomczak threw two more and was charged with two fumbles. Blair, meanwhile, watched a linebacker cruise gracefully around him and smack Tomczak in the first quarter, then–in an effort to avoid more of the same–committed a holding penalty in the Bears’ late drive, nullifying a pass that would have put the Bears on the Seahawks’ one-yard line. Tomczak threw an interception soon after.

Turnovers, intensity, strategy–all these issues fell away as the cameras pictured Payton leaving the field. It was a picture we had seen many times before–Payton, head held high, but resigned, with the empty yellow seats in the background telling the story of the outcome and the final apathy of the fans. It’s just that it had been so long since we’d seen that picture, so many years since Payton showed up in Chicago as the only thing in a Bears uniform worth watching. What awaits next year?