Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, by Jeff Pearlman, Gotham Books, 496 pages

By Paul Beston | October 25, 2011

Jeff Pearlman, a Sports Illustrated writer and author of numerous sports books including biographies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, must be nostalgic for the days when the only people angry with him were his subjects. His new biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, has apparently united the nation’s third-largest city against him. This is because, in Payton, a running back for the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1987, Pearlman picked the antithesis of Clemens and Bonds: as close as professional sports, and certainly the National Football League, ever comes to a plaster saint. Pearlman’s book portrays Payton, who died in 1999, as a human being—a legendary player and great spirit but a tormented, sometimes selfish, and entirely imperfect man.  For following his responsibility to the truth, not to the wishes of Payton’s many admirers, Pearlman has been condemned widely by football fans, received “vicious threats,” and earned the scorn of some of Payton’s old teammates. Mike Ditka, who coached Payton in Chicago, called Pearlman “a gutless individual” and said he’d spit on him.

It’s not difficult to understand the pain of Payton’s family or the protectiveness of his friends. But fans’ anger at Pearlman offers another example of how we cherish heroes and wish to see them as immune to the entangling flaws that bring the rest of us down. Why we need to believe this is a question that long predates Walter Payton and will outlive Jeff Pearlman.

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One of professional football’s iconic figures, Payton was also, for many, the game’s greatest all-around player—an adept pass-catcher, credible passer (he once quarterbacked a game for the Bears), and a devastating blocker. Neither the largest running back nor the fastest, Payton had something rarer than size or speed: spirit. He ran with a majestic violence, colliding with defenders when he couldn’t elude them, as if he found in being hit a personal challenge to maintain his wondrous balance. He seemed to have a power pack in his legs; defenders would hit him straight-on, and he’d kick his legs up high and keep going. When he was young, one defender was almost never enough to stop him.

Payton’s nickname, Sweetness, became for many an apt personal description. He embraced fans, and especially children, with a generosity rarely seen in athletes. His soft, high-pitched voice, his famous penchant for practical jokes, and his off-field charity efforts—the NFL’s Man of the Year award now bears his name—rounded out the profile of a Mississippi-born black kid who became Chicago’s favorite son. Added to all of that was the tragic coda: Payton’s untimely death from bile-duct cancer, which developed from a rare and awful kidney disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis. As one of his former teammates put it, Payton proved that the good die young.

Plumbing deep into Payton’s life—he interviewed 678 people—Pearlman reveals the moody, guarded man behind the beloved star. Pearlman would have been hard-pressed to deliver the genuflecting portrait that so many fans desired once his interviewees started telling him things no biographer worth his tape recorder would ignore.

Like the fact that Payton kept tanks of nitrous oxide in his garage, a steady supply of laughing gas that he drew on daily. Or that Payton developed a steady painkiller habit during his playing days—hardly surprising, given what he put his body through—and did not relinquish it during his retirement.

Or the fact that Payton, the picture of the devoted family man, lived apart from his wife, Connie, for most of the last decade of his life, and that he was a serial philanderer long before then. During Payton’s induction weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his aides orchestrated an elaborate keep-away game to avoid a scene between Connie and his mistress. Payton also had an illegitimate son, whom Pearlman gives the pseudonym Nigel. He was born to a young woman with whom Payton had an affair in the mid-80s, but Payton never acknowledged him or even met him.

Or the fact that in retirement Payton “often found himself suffocated by darkness,” a despair that eventually included suicidal threats, complete with gunplay and late-night phone calls to associates in which he’d threaten not only to kill himself, but to take others with him.

Most of these details were revealed in an excerpt published in Sports Illustrated, and if there is a villain here, it is not Pearlman but the once-great sports magazine. From a book over 400 pages long and laden with dogged football reporting, SI chose to focus entirely on personal details from Payton’s final years. The magazine preview created the impression for some that Pearlman was another Kitty Kelly, seeking to enrich himself with a tawdry tell-all.

To the contrary, Sweetness is an exhaustive, compelling, and mostly sympathetic biography. It’s all here: the youth in Columbia, Mississippi, where Payton played a peacemaking role in the integration of the town’s black and white high schools; football stardom at Jackson State, where Payton’s budding greatness was mostly ignored by the mainstream media; the Hall of Fame career in Chicago, which finally culminated in the Super Bowl title that failed to fulfill him; the difficult retirement years, in which Payton struggled with the ex-athlete’s burden of trying to find an encore; and finally the illness that took his life at just 46.

Pearlman really did talk to everybody, including Payton’s teammates on those long-forgotten Bears teams of the 1970s, when the organization was more concerned with saving money than winning. Revie Sorey, Noah Jackson, Robin Earl, Johnny Musso, Mike Adamle, Bo Rather, Doug Plank, Bob Avellini: any sports-loving Chicagoan who grew up during those years will recognize the names as if out of a distant dream. They were men who saw Payton in the fiery bloom of his young running days, when coaches and players routinely marveled at his deeds.

It’s ironic that the revelations about Payton’s personal life captured all the headlines, because Pearlman’s discoveries about Payton the player are in some ways more surprising. The book negates nothing about Payton’s football greatness or his toughness—he missed just one game in 13 years—but it punctures the image of Payton as the most selfless of players. Frustrated with the Bears continued losing ways, Payton at one point called himself “a rose in a dandelion garden.” Contrary to the image of the great star who shrugged off personal accomplishments, Payton was obsessed with them, especially with breaking Jim Brown’s NFL rushing record (Payton’s new record stood until 2002). He was revered around the league as the long-suffering legend who just wanted to play with a winner, but when Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, and others arrived in the eighties to give him his wish, he felt overshadowed and unappreciated.

January 26, 1986, the day the Bears rolled to a Super Bowl victory over New England, 46-10, should have marked the consummation of Payton’s career. But with all the scoring the Bears did that day, they somehow couldn’t get a touchdown for Payton. Having finally realized his cherished dream of winning football’s biggest game, Payton walked off the field with a visible pout, a reaction that puzzles his admirers to this day. Pearlman makes clear, however, that the Super Bowl sulk was not so much an aberration as a lifting of the mask. All players feel some conflict between their devotion to themselves and their responsibilities to the team. Payton had somehow convinced us that he didn’t.

His later-life despair and erratic behavior has prompted some to speculate whether Payton might have suffered brain trauma, the cloud that hovers over football’s future today. We’ll never know, but Payton’s personal struggles illustrate a more universal point: that it’s all but impossible to be a great athlete and have anything like a normal life. The toll taken by such a grueling pursuit seems unavoidably distorting of character and destructive of well-being.

Yet it’s fitting that only the rarest of ailments could bring Payton down. The disease progressed fast, and while Payton tried to keep his condition a secret, his wasted-away physique and jaundiced appearance made this impossible. His formidable spirit remained; he could still find it in himself, having just finished a chemotherapy session, to spend a few hours with a young cancer sufferer who idolized him. “I’ve seen an endless stream of athletes treat their fans as eczema-like irritations,” Pearlman writes. “They walk through the world as if encased in a Plexiglas bubble, immune to the fact that a minute’s worth of attention will often never be forgotten. Until the day he died, Payton refused to lose sight of this.”

As it happens, Pearlman’s book appeared days before President Obama welcomed the 1985 Bears at the White House. This customary tribute to championship sports teams was delayed a quarter-century in the Bears’ case because the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster scuttled the original event. Seeing the team lined up behind Obama on the South Lawn—a balding Jim McMahon wearing one of his goofy headbands—was a reminder of how frozen in time their most famous member has become.

One can lament some of the reactions to this book while also understanding the sense of aggrievement that it has provoked. Some of the reader condemnations of Pearlman on various websites reflect a sense of personal loss, as if the author had defiled not just Payton, but the memory of their own childhood. Such attachments are easy to dismiss until one finds himself succumbing to them. It humbles me to admit that, after all these years, Walter Payton, a mere athlete, had retained the power to make me believe that some things were more or less what they promised to be. In my mind he belongs to a bygone world of innocence and possibility. He exuded power balanced by grace and yes, by love. Now we know that he suffered and caused some suffering of his own. It will take more than this to make us forget that we saw him run.

Paul Beston is an associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.