Exactly 40 years ago Monday, Bears superstar running back Walter Payton delivered one of the greatest individual performances in NFL history.
On Nov. 20, 1977, the legendary Hall of Famer set a single-game league record by rushing for 275 yards on 40 carries in a 10-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field.
What made Payton's performance even more impressive is that he accomplished the feat while battling the flu. Sweetness told reporters after the game that he had felt queasy up until kickoff.
"I had hot and cold flashes on Wednesday, and felt weak," Payton said at the time. "You put your faith in God, and he'll take care of you. I was hoping he would do so today, and he did."
Payton eclipsed O.J. Simpson's NFL record of 273 yards by just two yards, breaking the mark on his final carry, a four-yard run late in the game. Simpson had set the record a year earlier on Thanksgiving Day in a 27-14 loss to the Lions in Detroit.
Payton's 58-yard run on his 38th rushing attempt put him in position to set the record and gave the Bears a first down at the Vikings' 9-yard line. On fourth-and-goal from the 6, Payton picked up four yards, turning the ball over on downs at the Minnesota 2 with 2:12 remaining.
The Nov. 20, 1977 game ball, presented to Walter Payton.
Protecting a 10-7 lead, Bears coach Jack Pardee passed up the chance to kick a short field goal because he felt "that was the only way we could lose, for them to block a kick and return it 90 yards for a touchdown like they did against Los Angeles last year."
The Vikings were adept at blocking kicks in the 1970s. In fact, their only touchdown against the Bears on Payton's record-breaking day came when Matt Blair blocked a Bob Parsons punt and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown, closing the gap to 10-7 late in the third quarter. It was Blair's fourth blocked kick of the season and third against the Bears.
Going into the teeth of a strong wind, the Vikings reached their own 45 with :45 remaining. But the Bears knocked quarterback Bob Lee out of the game and replacement Tommy Kramer was intercepted by Bears cornerback Allan Ellis, clinching the win.
As you'd expect, all of the talk after the game revolved around Payton's performance.
"As to Walter Payton's achievements today, they were outstanding," said Vikings coach Bud Grant. "I can't say anything that hasn't been said before. If I were better with words maybe I could. He had a great day. It's his field and it's where he does his thing best."
Payton, who scored the Bears' only touchdown on a 1-yard run in the second quarter, may have been the only one who wasn't blown away by the performance.
"Maybe it'll mean something later, or in three or four years when I'm out," said Payton, who went on to play 10 more seasons. "But right now it's just another game."
Just another game? No chance. On that blustery afternoon 40 years ago Monday, Payton became the third player in NFL history to rush for at least 200 yards more than once, broke his own Bears record for yards in a season, became only the third player in league annals with at least 40 carries in a game and rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half for the third time in 1977.
Payton's 275 yards also were more than the 229 yards that Bears leading rusher Ross Montgomery accumulated during the entire 1970 season.
Payton's record stood for 23 years until it was broken by Bengals running back Corey Dillon, who rushed for 278 yards on Oct. 22, 2000. It was such an impressive accomplishment that the Pro Football Hall of Fame requested Payton's jersey and the ball he carried to set the mark.
Payton led the NFL in rushing in 1977 with 1,852 yards and was named league MVP. A nine-time Pro Bowler, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 after spending his entire 13-year pro career with the Bears and retiring as the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards.