Growing up in Chicago in the 80’s and being a huge fan of professional sports, there wasn’t a whole lot to look forward to or even be proud of. The Cubs had an occasional good season, but even 1984 and 1989 ended in heartbreak. The Bulls were only coming in to their glory by the end of the 80’s and the Blackhawks wouldn’t have the core of their strong teams of the 90’s until 1988. But at least we had the ’85 Bears. More importantly, we had Walter Payton.
Sweetness was the one thing you consistently point to in the Chicago sports scene as something that set us apart. It was the one thing that Chicagoans could hold on to. More often than not, the Bears were just as anemic and pathetic as the rest of the teams in the city. But Walter did it all. He would run ferociously, catch passes, block and even on occasion throw a pass. No matter what anyone says and no matter that virtually all of his records have now been broken, I will always maintain that Sweetness was the best running back in the history of the NFL and many other from Chicago (and I am sure other places around the world) feel the same way.
While it doesn’t add anything in to his play on the field, the other thing that myself and many others liked about him was how he carried himself overall. It’s where his nickname “Sweetness” came from. He was soft-spoken, friendly and good-natured. He was a dedicated family man (he loved his son so much that he let him give his introduction speech when Walter was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though his son was only 12 years old!) There are countless stories about how he always had time for a fan or for a kid or really anyone else who wanted his attention. And in his tremendous work ethic (the story of him mercilessly running up a hill near his home was legendary) and refusal to celebrate touchdowns the City of Big Shoulders saw someone that was like them. He was our hero.
Then, the tragic icing on the cake sealing the permanent halo around our hero. Walter Payton died much too young from a rare liver disease. Despite his awful prognosis he never asked “why me?”, still always had time for a fan or a kid and made sure to connect and reconnect with old teammates. Not only was our hero taken from us too soon, but he also went out with grace, humility and sweetness to the very end. A sad, bit heroic final chapter for a true hero.
But apparently there were more chapters to be written. A former Sports Illustrated writer has written a new biography detailing many heretofore unknown details about the life of Walter Payton. It tells of the darker, secret side of Sweetness. A side that he apparently tried desperately to keep hidden. A life of pain, depression, extreme use (abuse?) of various pain-killers and infidelity. Not exactly the picture of Sweetness that we all remember.
Not surprisingly, this book (which is available for sale tomorrow and was excerpted in last week’s edition of SI) has been widely criticized by many of Payton’s former teammates and his fans. To me, the only surprising reaction has been that of the author himself, Jeff Pearlman. I heard the tail end of a radio interview last week and I have seen some quotes where the author is responding to the vehement criticism of Payton’s former coach, Mike Ditka. Pearlman seems to be rather surprised and a bit disappointed that people have been reacting this way to his book.
Pearlman spent a good 2-3 years on this book and seems to have poured his heart and soul into this book. I thought I heard him say that Payton was one of his heros and is even more so after writing this book. Supposedly, he wanted to write the definitive history on Sweetness. I think he is truly shocked by the reaction. My only question is…. what did you think was going to happen?
Walter Payton is a beloved and revered figure in Chicago and probably in most of the country. The NFL’s Man of the Year Award (recognizing charity and volunteer work) is named after him! While no one deep down would have truly believed that Payton was perfect, the fact is that no one is particularly interested in having his imperfections thrown in their face. America is cynical. We likes to build people up, only to then tear them down. Presidents, candidates for office, athletes, movie stars and musicians alike. We love you and adore you until you get little too big and then we find any little reason to fault you and pick you apart. It is only a special few who reach a level so high that they are untouchable. People like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller. Walter Payton is in that group.
When I first read about the book, I thought I would be interested to read it because I get it. Perfect is boring. Perfect is unreal and unrealistic. The story of the hero is only interesting because of the quest that he or she undergoes which forever alters them and makes them into the hero that they were destined to be. By reading about the true degree of pain that he was in and the extreme measures he undertook to still play on Sundays, I though it really would give me a better appreciation for Sweetness. But after reading the excerpt (which apparently is the worst of the worst), I think I will skip it. I don’t want to see the man behind the curtain. The pain and misery I read in just a few pages over the weekend were more than enough for me. There are plenty of sports figures and other celebrities that I would love to see taken down a peg or two by a salacious tell-all book, but not Sweetness, not Walter Payton.
Of course the biggest irony of the entire book would seem to be that Walter was desperate to hide all of this his pain and suffering away from the world. It would seem that he felt he would be diminished in the eyes of the world and his adoring fans. But like all cover-ups and lies, it takes on a life of its own and it proceeds to consume you and your humanity. Just from reading the excerpt, I would imagine this is a lot of what happened to Walter. Hiding made things infinitely worse, pushing him further and further down into his black hole and insulating him more and more from the world and any semblance of help or hope. He forgot about the one thing that America likes even more than tearing someone down… watching someone put things back together once they have hit rock bottom. America loves a comeback story. Unfortunately, Sweetness isn’t around to make a comeback from this.
I sure wish he was though. I am sure he would fend this off like he did so many would be tacklers. With swift graceful running and then a punishing stiff arm.