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Payton Has Faith In Future

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Re

A little test. Just jot down the name of the first athlete who comes to mind.

All set? Go.

1) Hall of Fame running back.

2) All-time favorite Bear.

3) Chicago sports icon.

Pencils down. Let’s check your answers.

Oh, man.

O.J., Fridge Perry and Dennis Rodman?

Suddenly the highbrow view of sports as merely trivial looks like an upgrade from its current status as cultural charm bracelet.

Guess that’s why Walter Payton is the forgotten man of free association.

You remember Walter - the NFL’s all-time leading ground gainer and good guy? The human understatement? The superstar so indistinct that at the defining moment of his football career, his own team couldn’t see to hand him the football.

Matt Suhey, yes. The Fridge - gad - yes.

Walter Payton, no.

Celebrity was an uneasy fit on Walter Payton back when he was one. Today, he can’t even grasp the concept.

Maybe that’s why he took a somewhat missionary posture in headlining Wednesday’s Youth Awards Luncheon. He touched on all the old-but-important points - sacrifice, determination, commitment - and did it with trademark Payton dignity that seemed to have his teenage audience riveted, no matter how many times they may have heard it before.

Surely it was rehearsed. Payton’s son, Jarrett, is a 15-year-old soccer star at St. Viator in suburban Chicago. Think he’s memorized it yet?

“That group we had in there,” he said afterward, “they’re unique. We have an opportunity to get (the message) to them before they’re too far gone. But there’s a group out there that’s gone too far. Their opinions and focus and desires they’re not mine. It would be hard for me to relate to them.”

He didn’t name names, but Generation Deion comes to mind.

At 42, not quite four years since his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, Walter Payton is a self-described “old fart.” This next season will be his 10th out of football. He’s never had the desire to coach. His once avid desire to be an NFL owner has been extinguished.

“I’m glad I didn’t get the franchise in St. Louis,” said Payton, who fronted a group that tried to get an expansion team there before Madame Ram moved her sad-sack outfit there.

“I’d probably be a little bit disappointed at this point. Football has problems. It has its good points - the Super Bowl is great, the playoff system is great, it has great individual talent. But on the whole, it’s losing blood because of free agency and dissipating fan participation and loyalty.”

Consider this the rebuttal for commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s state-of-the-game sermon - and this from a member of the Chicago Bears board of directors.

Payton may not have the Nielsens and merchandising numbers to back up his tale of woe, but certainly he has some anecdotal evidence. How else to explain the stubborn knot of Chicagoans who have already purchased New Orleans Saints season tickets just because their man, Mike Ditka, will coach there next fall?

Da Bears? Uh-uh. Da Bear - whatever colors he happens to be wearing, and wherever.

This, then, is why Payton prefers to occupy himself with his business ventures, his restaurants, his auto racing Jones and his son’s soccer games.

“I want to have fun the rest of my life,” he said. “If I get a sports team or a football team, it would be a lot of aggravation.”

Teenagers he can talk to. Millionaires just out of their teens, apparently not.

“You see it coming,” he said, thinking back to his playing days. “Athletes are changing. They’re getting bigger, stronger, faster, and they’re being exposed to things at an earlier age. It’s hard to use the things that you did in previous years in terms of coaching them or relating to them.

“There were three things that were constants when we were growing up - fear of God, fear of your parents and fear of the police. Those things don’t exist anymore. How can you coach, how can you discipline, how can you lead if no one has those qualities?”

On the verge of a rant, Walter Payton cut it short. This is the part he’d left out of his luncheon address - knowing his audience, knowing his limits.

“It’s kind of disappointing that it takes a person - a celebrity, which I don’t consider myself - to deliver a message that kids will accept,” he said. “They get the same messages from their parents and other areas, but maybe it doesn’t sink in.

“I’m not a role model. I’m just myself. If there’s some good in me and what I say that they can take and use to make their lives better, so be it. I have no patent on it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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