Walter Payton: Can We Handle the Truth?

Sadly, none of our heroes are perfect

By , Contributor

This might be a surprise to people who haven’t lived in Chicago, but Michael Jordan, although perhaps the most popular athlete in the world, was never the most beloved Chicago sports star.

It was always Walter Payton and it was never even close. Chicagoans were awed and amazed by Jordan’s drive and athletic skill, but it was Payton who grasped their hearts.


Payton played in the NFL for 13 seasons, missed only one game, and seemingly treated every play, every practice, and even his legendary super rugged off season training as if the fate of very world depended on it.

Walter Payton SI cover.jpgWhen Payton died in 1999 of bile duct cancer at the age of 45, the entire city was filled with untold grief. It was like Superman had somehow mysteriously fallen ill and passed away.  It didn’t seem to make sense and the entire city reacted as if a family member had died. Believe me you are safer putting down Wrigley Field in Chicago than you are saying a bad word about Walter Payton.

Thus it’s not surprising that Chicago is enraged by a new biography of Payton that is excerpted in the current issue of Sports Illustrated. The book was written by Jeff Pearlman and is called Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, and fails to recall Payton as the happy-go-lucky warrior Bears fans remember.

I don’t know if Pearlman is planning on any book signings in the Windy City, but if he is I would suggest bringing along an entire crew of bodyguards because the whole town and almost all of his ex-teammates are enraged that the saintly Payton, for whom the NFL’s man of the year award is named, is having his name besmirched without being able to defend himself.

When I first mentioned the book to a friend of mine who is a devout Bears and Payton fan, he immediately discounted the book as being filled with lies. Tarnishing the legacy of Walter Payton is just completely off-limits, and he refused to even consider the revelations from the book that made headlines this past week.

The controversial part of the book deals with Payton’s depression after his retirement. He is portrayed as a man unsure how to follow up his football career, a man whose marriage was a sham, and someone so addicted to painkillers that he popped them like jellybeans.

Walter Payton Hall of Fame.jpgPayton’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is revealed to have been not the pinnacle of his career, but a stressful mess in which Walter was forced to deal with the wife he no longer lived with but never divorced, as well as his mistress, who demanded the same front row attention as the man’s family.

It’s not surprising to me that Sports Illustrated is in the middle of this mess. I’m a subscriber to the magazine, but I learned years ago that sometimes the publishing institution falls prey to one of America’s biggest travesties. When an athlete is young and on top, the magazine builds these men and women athletes up to be heroic, generous and kindhearted, only to tear them down a few years later when their lives become more complicated.

For years Kirby Puckett was portrayed by the media to be perhaps the most wonderful, happy, smiling athlete ever to grace any ball field, only to have that image smashed apart after his playing career by a magazine that had previously been only too happy to feed the public’s need for heroes. Check out some old SI articles about a young Michael Vick and you are guaranteed to find a true blue American hero who no one would ever for a second think to be headed off to prison amidst a dog fighting scandal.

I feel for Chicagoans, but as long as Pearlman’s information is accurate and well vetted I always believe in the truth. People are complex. They have good days and bad days. Biography's of heroes written for young people are notorious for whitewashing the truth, but adults should be able to handle and embrace the fact that no one is perfect, and that ignoring that does infinitely more harm than good.

Walter Payton SI Pearlman book.jpgAnother reason I feel the Payton biography is important, is I'm frankly no longer the football fan I used to be, and the reason is the game itself. It’s barbaric and leaves the vast majority of the men who play it crippled, in pain, and with drastically reduced life spans that make smoking look like a better long-term decision.

Payton’s quarterback on the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears, Jim McMahon, is currently suing the NFL for the frequent concussions he was encouraged to play with, and has related that he sometimes finds himself dazed with no recollection of where he is or what he has just done. Recently, another teammate of Payton’s, Doug Duerson, committed suicide after texting his family to have his brain tested for football’s role in his crushing depression.

Much as I want to believe that Walter Payton was invincible, much as I still believe that he was the ultimate warrior and for the most part a wonderful, gregarious man, it never makes sense to stick our heads into the ground.

It’s time to seriously reexamine the sport of pro football, and perhaps this new Payton biography will continue to make that more of a coming reality.

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Brad Laidman has been a freelance writer since 2000. His work has appeared in Film Threat, Perfect Sound Forever, and Rock and Rap Confidential. His defense of The Kinks' Dave Davies so moved the legendary guitarist that Davies labeled Brad his hero and he has the email to prove it.

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