On October 7, 1984, Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton becomes the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, breaking the record Cleveland’s Jim Brown set in 1965. In front of 53,752 people at Soldier Field, Payton carried the ball 154 yards and finished the game with a new career rushing record–12,400 yards, 88 more than Brown.
The week before, Payton had rushed 155 yards against the Cowboys, and he had only 66 yards to go before he beat Brown’s 20-year-old record. Still, the Bears had been playing unevenly since the beginning of the season–they’d won their first three games, then lost two–and the team got a slow start against the New Orleans Saints. During the first quarter Payton moved the ball only 34 yards in six runs; during the second, he made nine runs and gained 30 yards, including a one-yard touchdown with three seconds left in the half. To beat Brown’s record, he needed to carry the ball just three more yards. Almost as soon as the second half began, Bears quarterback Jim McMahon pitched the ball to Payton in a reliable play that the team called the “Toss 28 Weak.” Fullback Matt Suhey and left guard Mark Bortz protected Payton as he completed a record-setting six-yard run.
He didn’t take much time to celebrate, though. All week, Bears officials had been urging their star to let them stop the game for a ceremony when he finally broke the rushing record, but Payton maintained that the team’s momentum was more important than his achievement. So, the festivities were brief. Payton accepted his teammates’ congratulatory hugs and handshakes, turned the record-setting football over to a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and went back to the game. (He did take a call from President Ronald Reagan afterwards.) His dedication paid off: The Bears won the game 20-7 and Payton set one more record, for carrying the ball more than 100 yards for the 59th time in his career.
Payton played for the Bears for two more seasons, and his eventual rushing record–16,726 yards–stood until Dallas running back Emmitt Smith surpassed it in a game against the Seattle Seahawks in October 2002. Smith still holds the record, for 18,355 yards. Walter Payton, however, remains one of the greatest running backs ever to play in the NFL. He died of cancer in November 1999.