CHICAGO — Professional sports are littered with Hall of Famer members who achieved remarkable individual accomplishments but failed to play on a championship team.
One is Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, who toiled mostly for last-place teams. Tony Esposito of the Chicago Black Hawks, one of the premier goaltenders in the NHL, never could lead his team to a Stanley Cup championship.
Jerry Sloan of the Chicago Bulls was one of the best defensive guards ever to play in the NBA but he could not claim a championship.
Pro football may have more than its share of players in this category and one superstar, Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, probably leads a list that also includes a former Bear, Gale Sayers, and O.J. Simpson.
Payton can lay claim to being the all-time leading rusher in the NFL. He has been in the Pro Bowl more times than he can remember; he has cracked numerous other offensive records in the NFL but has yet to win the one prize that eludes him, a Super Bowl ring.
"That's always been the goal. That is still the goal," said Payton, getting ready for his 11th pro season.
Payton hadn't really come close until last year. The Bears were muddled in mediocrity for Payton's first decade in pro football, although he racked up season after season of 1,000 yards or more.
Last year, the Bears suddenly found themselves on the threshold. They won their first NFC Central Division title, stunned the Washington Redskins in the NFC semifinals and earned a right to meet the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Payton was one step away from the Super Bowl he so desperately wanted. But his dream was shattered as the Bears were shut out 23-0 by the eventual Super Bowl champions.
"Tomorrow is another day," was Payton's only quote after the game.
"You could really feel for the team, but particularly for Walter," said Bears' coach Mike Ditka. "He wanted it so bad. But he's an inspiration for this team to climb the ladder and get back up one more step."
Never has Payton done more for a team than he did in 1984. In addition to breaking Jim Brown's career mark and getting his customary 1,684 yards, Payton had to work harder last year than in any pro season. He was coming off knee surgery and had to prove to skeptics he could still rush effectively at a time when most running backs were looking toward their pension checks.
Not only did Payton perform--and win--he was even called upon to play quarterback for the Bears' depleted signal calling corps.
"It was fun but nothing I want to do for a living," Payton said.
"That's the kind of guy he is," said quarterback Steve Fuller. "Can you imagine some other guys with Payton's achievements volunteering to do that?"
Defensive linebacker Mike Singletary said Payton's accomplishments in practice serve as a motivation for the Bears.
"Some guys could go in there and just run through their patterns and call it a day. Not Walter. He's in there all the time, hitting hard, blocking, doing what it takes to win," Singletary said. "That is why this man is always going to be a winner."
Quarterbacking, blocking, instructing. These are talents that won't show up in the Payton rushing record but that are the intangibles Ditka believes will eventually land Walter in the Super Bowl.
"You know, you don't always have a chance to have an athlete like Walter playing for you. This man wants to win every day, wants to win the Super bowl," Ditka said. "He deserves it. He's worked harder than any player I've ever been associated with. And he's so gifted."
Just how long Payton will hang around to try to get that Super Bowl ring remains a question that the former Jackson State star may not be able to answer himself.
During the 1982 player strike, Payton admitted being so fed up he considered retiring even before he was able to crack Brown's career mark. He talked in terms of maybe one more year at the time.
But the improvement of the Bears as a team--and his ability to bounce back from the knee surgery--may have given Payton a taste of the fountain of youth. Clubs that go 13-5 and reach the NFC championships have a way of doing it.
"I think 15,000 yards is a possibility," said Payton, who has 13,309 for his career. "But that isn't what I'm in this game for. I said that all before the record and I don't know whether all of you believed me."
The Bears, pre-season choice to win the NFC Central and considered by some to be Super Bowl contenders, could help Payton achieve that dream this year or possibly next year.
If Chicago does make it to the championships, then Payton may decide that he has had enough.
His health also could dictate his ability to stay in the game. The average career expectancy of a running back in the NFL is four years. He has nearly tripled that.
He has done it the hard way. He has a string of starts dating back to his rookie season. Even if he doesn't play every down now--he would be willing to if Ditka would let him--he still is considered among the elite of the NFL at age 31.