Thursday, October 6, 2011


Author Jeff Pearlman's new Walter Payton biography, "Sweetness," has some unflattering details about the Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back.  In the book, Pearlman alleges that Payton had affairs, battled depression and abused pain killers.

I have not read "Sweetness," though I did read the Sports Illustrated excerpt containing the allegations, which I found interesting but hardly surprising.  Most Chicagoans have heard rumors of Payton's infidelity through the years, while pain killers and depression were ooh so common for players active in the 1970's. 

In fact, the "broken down jock" narrative would make a good county music song:  Legendary player (insert name) struggles with life after (insert sport), finances and marriage fall apart while depression and addictions intensify. 

Jeff Pearlman insists his book is a balanced look at an enigmatic man, a "definitive" biography, in his words. 

We could debate what, if anything, is out of bounds when writing about a public figure, and to what extent they should be "outed" for their shortcomings.   A good biography paints a complete picture, which often isn't pretty. 

For the record, I am as objective here as a life insurance salesman in a maternity ward.  Walter Payton was my childhood hero and the greatest football player I have ever seen. 

I was in 4th grade in 1977 when Payton rushed for an NFL record 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings.  I remember the game, and I remember proudly wearing my Walter Payton "iron-on" from the local sports page a few days later.  And every day until the t-shirt fell off my back. 

Walter Payton was Zeus in shoulder pads.  So quick, so strong, so tough.  With legs churning like pistons, he never stopped moving, redefining the football term "forward progress."

I never saw Sweetness take an initial hit.  Payton rarely "got hit."  He always delivered the blow, with a stiff arm I'm sure felt like being struck by an AMC Pacer. 

Walter Payton played on some lousy teams, in a city of lousy teams.  He was our collective hope back when Chicago was home to more dog teams than the Yukon. 

Here's my Payton story:

My grade school was a block from Northwestern's Dyche Stadium, and in those days when the field was bad at Lake Forest College (yes kids, there was a time before practice domes and heated surfaces) the Bears bused to Evanston for practice on NU's artificial concrete, I mean turf.  My buds and I made the trip hoping for a sweatband, arm pad or autograph.  

One time I waited outside in the snow after practice, pen and paper in hand, when Walter Payton emerged from the locker room in his game uniform. 

A camera crew from Sports Illustrated was there to take Payton's picture for a cover story on the Bears.  I watched him approach the crew and insist that he wouldn't appear in any shot without his offensive line. 

As the crew and flunkies haggled over the photo spread, a line began to form as a Bears official herded us kids for autographs.  Inexplicably, I ended up in the back (should have thrown a stiff arm or two).  Payton walked up to the line, looked at the first kid and bellowed, "I'm starting at the back." 

I still have the runny, worn signature, and a glimpse into Walter Payton, the man. 

Sadly, we will never know whether Payton suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the progressive brain damage which strikes so many players, including his Super Bowl teammate Dave Duerson, who committed suicide earlier this year. 

Sweetness was gone too soon, but his legacy is timeless. 

Despite Jeff Pearlman's salacious morsels, Walter Payton will never be "semi-sweet."


  1. Walter Payton as a role model serves young people poorly. As our economy and social fabric deteriorate we do not need to teach children that it is OK to have suspect morals and use drugs as recreational vehicles and we certainly do not nee to erase the spectre of such behavior in an attempt to find heroes.Books like this are needed if for no other reason than to set the record straight.

  2. I think you raise some good points Ed. Payton as a football player was great, and someone for kids to emulate. As a man he is flawed. If we were, however, to evaluate for personal shortcomings every street, park, monument or school named for our so called heroes I suspect sign makers would become very busy.

    I wrote a post a while ago about Derrick Rose and my son's reaction when I insisted he give his Rose jersey to charity after the news broke about Rose cheating on the SAT. It seems to me the lesson for kids is to admire people based on what you know and see.

  3. I heard Jesus hung out with KNOWN prostitutes. There's no way I'm going to teach my kids to look up to him now. How ridiculous it is to assert that WP is a poor role model because he may or may not have been adulterous or may or may not have used drugs? He was, by all (other) accounts a hero, on and off the field. In fact, would we even KNOW about any of these alleged shortcomings had this author not chosen to go rattle the bones in the closet? And posthumously, so WP can't defend himself? It's hardly like biographing Churchill and saying he liked to drink- WP was a hero to so many kids, he did even more off the field- more than most of us have done and I think that alone is enough for me to sing his praises to my 11 year old son who thinks he's pretty cool. Who, exactly, are supposed to be role models, if to be one means you can't be flawed, human??