During the week, running back Walter Payton of the unbeaten Chicago Bears plays the drums to relax. On Sunday he beats on the emotions of opposing tacklers, never giving them much of a target, often reversing his field, almost always finding a slice of daylight where a second before none appeared to exist. When Payton broke Jimmy Brown's all-time National Football League career rushing record last year (12,312 yards), he unofficially bought himself a locker in the game's Hall of Fame. And he's having another big season this fall with 993 yards gained in his first 10 games, making him the National Conference's second-leading rusher at the moment.
The way Walter keeps rolling along, he may last as long as baseball's Pete Rose -- well, not really, but 101/2 seasons and counting is already pretty impressive for a player asked to take such a beating week after week. You might say he has proved to be as durable as the wheels on a cross-country moving van -- except that he corners better!
Ask those who see Payton regularly to explain his success and the word you hear most frequently is ``instincts.''
Of course most great backs have instincts, as well as great legs and great speed. What sets Payton apart from other runners of his generation (as it did Brown) is the mental gyroscope that seems to control his entire 5 ft. 11 in., 200-pound body. Hits by would-be tacklers that would ground most ballplayers are merely temporary disturbances to Walter, whose center of gravity lies somewhere between that of an alligator and a rhino.
Although Payton knows he's good and spends a lot of time in the spotlight, he has always been able to play it cool with the public. In Chicago, he is probably the most popular Bear of all time.
Payton has quite a sense of humor, too. When he broke Brown's record and President Reagan called, Walter's first words were: ``The check is in the mail.'' When a teammate dropped a sure touchdown pass, he stopped him on the way back to the huddle and grinned: ``Don't feel bad, you can always get a paper route or join the Army.'' And when a reporter asked him if he would mind if another running back were to eventually break his career rushing record, Payton replied: ``Of course not, as long as he's my son.''
Move over, Johnny Carson, you've got company! Coaches on thin ice
While owners and general managers of NFL clubs with losing records almost never talk about it officially, several head coaches are running out of time where their jobs are concerned. The New Orleans Saints apparently have had it with Bum Phillips, the Atlanta Falcons with Dan Henning, and the Kansas City Chiefs with John Mackovic.
In addition to woeful records (the Falcons are 1-9, the others 3-7 each), all three teams have given up considerably more points than they have scored. However Phillips, Henning, and Mackovic are all expected to finish the season -- part of that decision undoubtedly based on a reluctance to be paying two coaches at the same time. Owners and general managers also are aware that coaches brought in at midseason often don't click that well with someone else's leftover staff.
Earlier this season Buffalo fired Head Coach Kay Stephenson after an 0-4 start and replaced him with defensive coordinator Hank Bullough. Since then the Bills have still been losing, but not quite as badly, going 2-4 so far under Bullough. New coaches put to test
Rookie NFL head coaches frequently have trouble winning more games than they lose the first time around. Include such famous strategists as Bud Grant of Minnesota, Tom Landry of Dallas, Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh, and Bill Walsh of San Francisco in that category -- though of course some of these eventual big winners did start out with very poor teams.
One coach who is out to break the stereotype this year is Detroit's Darryl Rogers, whose Lions have had a winning record most of the season although Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears knocked them back to .500. At this point, Detroit fans probably would rather recall what happened earlier this season, when the Lions on successive weeks upset both of last season's Super Bowl teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins.
``What's tough for most new coaches is that they almost always come into a losing situation,'' Rogers said. ``While looking at old films to pinpoint problems is helpful, final decisions can't really be made until you start working with your players in practice, and that takes weeks. This year we spent as much time preparing for the Packers and Colts [both losses] as we did for the 49ers and Dolphins [both wins], so you know a lot of this game is mental.''