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."